Smelt are used in many cuisines, because of their wide availability around the world. When you get smelt that are under 6 inches, they are best cooked and eaten whole, including their soft bones. Frying in hot oil turns them into aquatic “French fries”: their skin, head, and tail become wonderfully crunchy while the sweet flesh stays tender and moist.

Seasoning fried smelt simply with salt and pepper would be good enough to enjoy these delicate fish. However, you will find it more fun, and rewarding, to enliven your dish with a spice mix that gives it a unique character or sense of place. For example, my smelt dish takes you to the Sichuan province in China.

The recipe is inspired by the famous Sichuanese dish Chicken with Chilies, or La Zi Ji (辣子鸡) in Mandarin. The chicken, with bone in and skin on, is cut into bite-size pieces, deep-fried, and then seasoned with copious amount of dried chilies and Sichuan peppercorns, together with ginger, garlic, and scallion. The aroma from the concoction of the spices will make you immediately fall in love with the dish, even before you take your first bite.

Here, I give the smelt the same treatment, though with reduced amount of spices so they don’t overpower the fish. The dish looks spicier than it actually is, as the chilies and Sichuan peppercorns here contribute more to the aroma than the taste.

You can ask your fishmonger to clean the fish for you, or you can do it easily at home without the need for scaling or cutting. Simply pull out the gills which are connected to the entrails, and discard them. Do keep the roe!

 

Fried smelt with chilies

Serves 2

Ingredients

14 oz (400 g) smelt
1/2 cup (20 g) dried chilies, cut into 1-inch pieces and seeds removed
1 tablespoon (5 g) Sichuan peppercorns
One (1-inch) ginger, thinly sliced
2 scallions, cut into 1-inch pieces
1 garlic clove, thinly sliced
2 teaspoons vegetable oil
1/3 cup vegetable oil for frying

Marinade
1 teaspoon Shaoxing wine
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon potato starch or cornstarch

Sauce
1 teaspoon Shaoxing wine
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon sugar
1/4 teaspoon ground white pepper

Direction

  1. Marinate the smelt with the Shaoxing wine and salt for 5 minute. Pat the fish dry and coat them with the starch.
  2. Heat the 1/3 cup oil in a wok over high heat to 375 °F (190 °C). Fry half of the smelt until golden brown, about 3 minutes. Transfer them to a plate lined with paper towels. Repeat with the remaining fish. Discard the oil, and wipe the wok clean.
  3. In a small bowl, mix the ingredients for the sauce. Heat the 2 teaspoons oil in the wok over medium heat. Add the dried chilies and Sichuan peppercorns, and stir-fry for 30 seconds. Add the ginger, garlic, and scallions, and stir-fry for another 30 seconds. Return the smelt to the wok, and add the sauce. Stir to coat the fish with the sauce, for 30 seconds. Serve immediately.
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