In a previous life, I used to work for a giant booze company. I used to commute between my home in the San Francisco (which was only 7 miles away from the office but took 40 minutes to drive sometimes) to the office near the Embarcadero or to the winery in Napa Valley in my little beloved 2-seater fancy pantsy convertible. I know, a tough life, huh?
On the days that I’d head to the city office, I would try to take the subway a couple times a week and on the walk after work back to the subway, I’d often meet friends for dinner at a Greek restaurant called Kokkari. Coincidentally, I just found out that my very handsome friend and fellow blogger Michael Procopio (*waving hi, Michael!*) works there.
The must-order item on the menu is Fried Smelt, little fishies fried whole and served with a garlic-potato skordalia (thick potato-based dipping sauce) and wedges of lemon. The finger-length fried smelt is eaten whole – tail, bone and all – and I call them my Greek French Fries as they are just as addictive.
My version doesn’t come with a dipping sauce (though I’m sure you’d could whip up a garlic aoili or find a recipe for garlic-potato skordalia, but instead I toss the fried smelt quickly in an aromatic saute of butter, garlic, chilies and fresh herbs. And instead of coating the smelt in a flour batter, I prefer a crisp-crunchy texture that uses matzo meal mixed with garlic powder.
How to Make Fried Smelt
Here are the smelt fish, my fishmonger sells them thawed just like this. They should be no longer than 4 1/2-inches – I find that smelt bigger than that tend to have bones that are a little harder. The smaller, the better as you’ll be eating these fish whole.
The matzo meal is mixed with garlic powder and salt (or you could use garlic salt). Instead of matzo meal, substitute with regular flour, crushed cornflakes or panko. There’s no need to dip the smelt fish in egg – just pat on the matzo meal onto the fish.
About Garlic Powder
I’m part of the McCormick Gourmet team, bringing you in-depth information about everyday spices. From McCormick Gourmet’s Enspicelopedia:
Garlic Powder consists of dried, powdered cloves of the finest California garlic. A member of the lily family, it is one of the oldest cultivated plants. Garlic’s pungent flavor has been used since ancient times.
To maximize flavor, moisten with water before use.
1/8 teaspoon powdered garlic = 1 clove fresh garlic.
In a pan with about a half-inch of hot oil, carefully slide in the smelt fish. Fry for 3-4 minutes until golden brown.
Let the smelt drain on a wire rack to get rid of excess oil.
They’re quite pretty, aren’t they?!
For the aromatics, use a fistful of any fresh herbs you want. I’ve pulled some fresh parsley, oregano and thyme from the garden.
Half a lemon, minced fresh chili and minced fresh garlic.
In a pan with 2 tablespoons of butter, saute the aromatics and herbs until very fragrant (can you smell the garlic!?) Right before serving, pour this over the fried smelt.
Serve immediately with lemon wedges.
Fried Smelt Recipe
- cooking oil for frying (I like to use olive oil)
- 1 cup matzo meal
- 2 teaspoons garlic powder
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1 pound smelt
- 2 tablespoons butter
- handful fresh herbs, minced
- 1 clove garlic
- minced fresh chili pepper (I used 1 whole chili)
- salt and pepper
- 1 lemon, halved
- In a large saute pan, add oil to reach 1/2 inch up the sides of the pan. Heat the oil until 350F or when you drop a few flakes of matzo meal into the oil it begins to bubble and lightly brown.
- In a wide, shallow bowl, mix together the matzo meal, garlic powder and the salt. Have the matzo meal, the smelt, a wire rack on top of a baking sheet ready by your stove. Coat a smelt on both sides with the matzo meal then carefully slide into the hot oil to fry. Repeat with a few more smelt fish (just make sure you give the smelt enough room so that they don't touch in the oil). Fry both sides of the smelt fish for 2 minutes each side. They cook very quickly! Let the fried smelt drain its excess oil on the wire rack. Repeat with remaining batches.
- Just before serving, heat a saute pan over medium-high heat. Add the butter and when hot, add in the garlic and chilies. When garlic becomes fragrant, season with salt and pepper and squeeze in the juice of one of the lemon halves. Turn off the heat and stir in the fresh herbs. Pour this over the plated fried smelt and serve immediately with lemon wedges.
So so so good! All I had was parsley for the herbs but it still turned out fantastic.
I love smelts! My last batch was roasted in the oven. They were really good. I always leave the heads on and love to chomp on them as they crisp up really well. I think that’s the very best part of the fish. I’m Asian and grew up snacking on whole dried little fish. Of course, the heads were my favorite part. Even when sharing with my cat, I eat the heads and she gets the rest. Lol.
I’m new to writing to what that gets posted but I have to give you thanx for this wonderful recipe ….. My mom used to make fried sardines …. But it’s been quite sometime that I’ve had anything like them…. I made the smelts for my dad and we loved them … Brought back memories of our Puerto Rican heretage and wonderful foods❣
Yvonne, great to hear from you and happy you and your Dad loved the recipe!
I am dying to try these. I saw Smelt in our local Hannafords for the first time. They said they tend to get them twice a year. Around now and around Christmas/New Years. But there is a fishmonger and I will try there as well. I had wanted to try making sardines but nobody could get them and they looked at me like I had three heads. So I guess I’ll try Smelts. Question: Do you debone them? I did see a recipe that said you can get the whole backbone (I assume the ‘ribs’ as well) if you start at the head end…….. or do you not notice them when eating?
Eat the whole thing! 🙂 The bones are so soft that you’ll crunch right through them.
I was just fishing in Richmond, ca and caught a ton of these smelt for the first time yesterday! They were just jumping on the hooks for us. Caught 2 or 3 at a time even. Everyone at the fishing pier went home with buckets full. These are the bigger sized ones though 8-12 in ea. But ima give your recipe a try right now for lunch. Thanks!
So lucky! Give the larger fish more cooking time.
I have been making smelts since I was able to stand, however, I have to say after years of trimming and cleaning smelts, and seeing what the guts may contain, I wouldn’t dream of eating them without them being beheaded, de-finned, and spineless. That is why I won’t eat them anywhere unless I make them. I am sure your recipes are great, but to each his own. A Happy and healthy holiday to everyone!
Alaskan born and have had Hooligan MANY times. This is by far the best recipe that I have ever tried!
This recipe has changed my like for them to a love for them!
I now want to go dipnetting again!
My people (Native American/Fist Nations Canadian) have been eating these for thousands of years. They are good smoked on the fire. We build the fire right on the ice next to the hole sometimes and cook them right there. Or we can bring them home. Traditional spices are sea salt and Rosemary mostly.. Or a littles sea sage is good too. Less traditional is cornflakes and breadcrumbs with a lil garlic, Rosemary, chives or onion powder. We’ll just mix it together, dip or shake the fish in a ziplock bag and put them in a frying pan with butter (or oil if you prefer, though butter seems to taste better.. best choice if you are health conscience is coconut oil and salt but make sure the oil is high quality so it doesn’t make your food taste like coconut) on low heat so you don’t burn your butter. They are just wonderful like that. I use a spatula and just keep checking to make sure they don’t stick. Then when done a little lemon juice or vinegar sprinkled or just as is. Either way, it’s awesome. I can’t wait to try this way though. 🙂 Thanks so much for the recipe.
Trisha – LOVE this – I can almost taste it from your description!
I find that the matzo is great on these! I toss them in lemon juice prior to dredging them. I prefer Cornmeal, but the matzo gave it an exotic taste. Flour in a pinch, but did not like the texture of the panko flakes on this. My local fishmonger sells some that are 3 1/2″ long, heads on. I snip them off, though.
I live in Duluth, Mn. USA and live at the head of the Lakes, Lake Superior. I remember when I was a child back in the 50’s that my brothers would go down to the bay and got buckets full of Smelt, so I grew up eating them. This year due to the harsh winter and ice still on the Big Lake, Smelt didn’t come in hoards just a little bits.they spawn here.
I purchase smelts from an Asian Market that still have their heads and are not gutted. I dust them with corn starch or flour, fry them and eat them heads, guts, and all, They are delicious and are one of my favorite breakfast foods.
I live in Western NY by Niagara Falls….every year we have a “Smeltfest.” Beer tent, live music and tons of fresh smelt! I look forward to it every year.
So, went down to the river and caught smelt the other day for the first time ever. Cleaned and fried then up today, they looked and smelled delicious, but turned out really mushy…. The skin and tails were amazing, but I couldn’t get over the texture of the meat, do you do something to firm them up? Thanks!
I also had these as a kid, growing up in Milwaukee! I’m going to call up my mom and make this recipe with her!
What a great food. I made them the other night! Marinated them in lemon juice and a little smoked paprika. Used a little panko, corn meal, and flour. The fresh herbs and butter was delicious. I’m Portuguese and love grilled sardines too. Going to have a fish fest!
What an awesome way to describe the recipe, it’s process, and the reasoning behind it all. This brings me “home” having grown up on the coasts of Spain and a few other countries. Bravo!
I used brown rice flour.. very good
My grandmother’s recipe calls for soaking them in beer for a couple hours before cooking, and I’ve seen other similar recipes call for soaking them in milk before cooking.
I’ve only ever eaten smelt the way she prepares it, so I don’t have a sans-soak version to compare it to. What does soaking add, if anything at all, to fried smelt?
I’ve heard that this is to cut back on the fishy taste. Don’t know for sure, though.
oh, yay. i grew up eating this back when my dad would fish on a regular basis. thanks for the recipe.
Does anyone know f a good substitute for smelt?
Whitebait. Easy to find in the frozen section.
How the devil did I not see this earlier? So here I am, two months later, waving “Hi, Jaden!” right back at you.
These look delicious.
Everytime I see smelt, I think of you.
hey, isn’t that a song?!
So funny you call them Greek French Fries. I spent a couple weeks on the coast in Greece and lived on these and the fried anchovies (gavros). I described them to everyone as French Fries. I think it might be time to make a batch… not all the Greek memories are good, but these were probably the best!
I love smelts!
I never dreamed that Publix would carry them-now I’m set to have a favorite, fried at home. The herbs are a brilliant touch-I don’t mind gilding these lillies, er smelts.
Thanks for de-mystifying these little gems. I adore them, and have long wanted to make the lighter batter instead of the thick, glutonous mess my Horrible Russian Husband’s friends prefer when they bring these over to cook. Flour and oil ALL OVER THE PANTRY!! I’m taking over!! Thanks for empowering me!!!!
LOL you’re welcome!
This looks so good. I used to have this dish all the time as a kid but I haven’t been able to find a recipe anywhere.
I have to say I’ve never heard of smelt. I’ve always been afraid of sardines and other fish that are typically eaten whole, but you make this sound delicious. I’ll have to try it.
This dish is called Satsa in Bulgaria. They cook them head on. Umm..reminds me of warm evenings with cold beer next to the Black Sea 🙂
I’ve had this as a child. I am soooo happy to come across your recipe. Will give it a go really soon.
OMG I can’t believe you posted fried smelts!! My family LOVES these… but I thought it was an unusual Portuguese dish that I couldn’t tell anyone about! I am so excited to see this post- they are just as addicting as fries and I’m so happy I’m not the only one who thinks so!
🙂 I’m so happy to have found someone who’s equally excited about smelt as I am!!!
I’ve been on the hunt for a good fried smelt recipe and this one looks like a great one! 🙂 Bookmarking and keeping it for later!
On behalf of teenage boys everywhere I’d like to note that ‘he who smelt it, dealt it’. That said, these look awesome.
I’ve never had smelt. In the photo the heads are off, are they gutted as well?
Yes they are!
I’ve never tried smelt. Cool recipe!
I left Chile about one month ago and these were just coming into season.
This is how I served them. http://www.flickr.com/photos/40726522@N02/5606952182/in/photostream
Fried smelt dish looks yummmy…and I just ate! Can’t say I’ve ever had any. This will be great as an appetizer or with rice. Thanks for sharing!
My grandparents used to go smelt fishing every year Up North (in Mi.) and when they came home they would have a fish fry. Grandpa would fry them up in outside in a huge fryer. They were the best, and you are right kind of like french fries…never thought of it that way. Oh miss grandpa’s fish fries. Your’s look fantastic by the way ; )
I haven’t seen smelt since I was a kid growing up in Milwaukee. I’m glad to know they can get them at Publix. We have one here in HSV. My husband will be delighted when I serve him some.
The herbs and chili pepper make this dish look amazing 🙂
We’re having fried smelts for dinner, too! But I make them like a latkes. So good with spicy vinegar.
Oh my – these are way better than french fries in my book!
There is a restaurant near where I work at that serves fried head on smelt as an appetizer, they call them “fries with eyes”. They’re annoyingly addictive, I try to limit myself to happy hour there once a week.
LOL “fries with eyes”!!!
This looks amazing! I was recently out to dinner and the special of the night was a fried smelt sandwich….I ordered it, but eventually abandoned and ate the fillings with my fingers just the like fries you describe. 😉
These are hugely popular in Croatia too only the cook them and eat them with the head on. Super delicious.
My,my,my don’t those look good! I must make them now as I was just telling my husband how much I wanted to try them. He kinda gave me the eyebrow up tilted head look, but didn’t totally dis it. Now I gotta find them….have you ever been to Sanwa in Tampa? We go about once a month. Have to see if they have those little cuties.
I haven’t been to Sanwa. But you can get smelt at Publix (if not, just ask them to order for you). I”ll check to see if Sweetbay has them too.
This looks awesome! Growing up in the Philippines, fried smelt is one of my favorite afternoon snack. We would just deep fried it, much like we do Anchovies, eat it with steamed rice with a little side of salted eggs and tomatoes.
oh yummmmm….salty eggs too!
Oh my goodness! This is exactly what I ate while vacationing on the Black Sea in Bulgaria! Minus the cool ass herb and chili pepper topping and with the heads still intact, but exactly! And I have to say, they are a really good and addicting snack food. Thanks
well only you my dear can make smelt look good.
if you made this for me i would give it a go.
come on over!