Having to choose my favorite fried seafood dish would be like having to choose my favorite child...if I had children. I mean, how can I possibly pick from so many equally wonderful options? There's Italian frito misto, light and crisp, served with lemon wedges on the side and preferably eaten on the Ligurian coast with a glass of cold Vermentino. Then there's Japanese seafood tempura, so airy and perfectly fried that there's hardly an oil stain on the serving paper below it. Let's not forget British fish and chips—robust enough to stand up to all the malt vinegar you can throw at it.
My love for this stuff has no limits. Just ask Max, who recently watched me polish off a mountain of fried Ipswich clams after having eaten six whole lobster rolls. And don't even get me started on fried oysters. I once ate so many fried oyster po' boys in New Orleans I eventually spit out a pearl.*
* No, really.
But let's just say that one day all the fried fish dishes of the world were out of ear shot, and you and I were talking quietly in private. There's a chance that I'd come clean and admit that of them all, Peruvian jalea (ha-LEY-uh) has the tightest grip on my affections. If you've never had it, here's the gist: an abundance of fried mixed seafood topped with a bright, refreshing, tart salad of red onions, tomatoes, and cilantro marinated in lime juice. In some ways that basic description fails to get at what's so special about it, but believe me, it's a combination for the ages.
So, how to make it? Let's start with the seafood. The exact mix is up to you, but firm white-fleshed fish (halibut, cod, or striped bass, for example), shrimp, and squid are almost always included.
Some people also add octopus or bivalves like clams or mussels, but those are a bit more complicated to work with when deep frying, so I kept it to the basic three for my recipe.
The fish should be skinned and free of bones. I trim off the blood line—the dark brown flesh that runs along the center of the skin side of each fillet—and then slice the clean meat into pieces about one to two inches long and no more than an inch thick.
The squid, which I usually buy cleaned for convenience, just needs to have its bodies cut crosswise into rings. I did pretty thin rings here, but feel free to go a little wider if you like; doing so won't significantly change the cooking time.
Lastly, the shrimp should be shelled and deveined.
The coating for the seafood varies from one recipe to the next. I've seen some that call for a very simple dredging in seasoned flour, which is the easiest option, but a good cookbook I picked up in Peru a couple years ago suggests to me that beer batter is another acceptable route. I happen to like the idea of an extra crisp beer-battered shell, especially since we want the fried seafood to maintain its crisp texture even after the moist topping has been piled on top, so that's what I went with here.
Kenji has published an excellent beer battered fish sandwich recipe, so that's the batter I'm using. It's made by combining flour with some corn starch, baking powder, and seasonings, then whisking light beer into it. You can read his full article on why this batter is so good, but the short version is that the cornstarch reduces gluten formation (read: less tough coating), while the beer and baking soda add lightness by aerating it.
Meanwhile, you keep a separate bowl of flour on the side and dredge the seafood in it first. For consistent cooking times, I battered and fried each of the three types of seafood separately (working in a medium pot, wok, or fryer, you'll have to fry in batches anyway, so might as well break it up by type); these photos show the fish, but the process is the same for all of them.
Then it gets coated in the batter.
You want to let most of the excess batter drain off before moving it back to the original bowl of flour, lest a lot of goopy batter gets in there and mucks it all up. Using a wire strainer like a spider can help speed that up. The truth is, it's a messy process, but that's okay, it'll all work out in the end.
In my recipe, I made one small change: After battering and frying the fish, I add a little more beer to the batter to thin it for the shrimp and squid. With the meaty chunks of fish, the original batter is perfect, but for the smaller shrimp and squid pieces, it's a little too thick to work with easily. The extra dose of beer thins it out just enough.
Lastly, the battered seafood gets a second toss in the flour, which helps create a wonderfully shaggy, crisp crust.
I fry the fish in 350°F oil until golden. Then I increase the oil temperature for the shrimp and squid batches to 375°F, since they're smaller and cook through faster; the higher oil temperature helps brown and crisp the batter more quickly so that the shrimp and squid don't overcook inside.
Beyond being a a little messy, the only challenge with this process is you have to keep a vigilant eye on your oil temp and adjust accordingly: It can creep up to its smoke point if you're busy prepping the next round of seafood and forget that it's sitting on the flame.
Once fried, I drain the seafood on paper towels and sprinkle with salt right away. Wait too long, and the salt won't adhere well, so get sprinkling!
Now, for the topping. The main ingredients are thinly sliced red onions, diced tomatoes, and cilantro, but there's also some minced fresh chili and garlic for kick. The traditional chili is aji amarillo, the sweet-hot Peruvian yellow pepper, but since that's hard to find, I used a red Fresno chili here. You can also use Serrano chilies or a jalapeño.
I actually prep it all before I start frying, since I don't want my fried seafood to sit around waiting for me to cut onions and such. I keep all the topping ingredients in a bowl together, adding the lime juice about ten to fifteen minutes before the fried seafood is ready, just long enough for the onions to macerate and soften slightly.
Some of you may notice that this topping, known in Peru and many other parts of South America as salsa criolla, is incredibly similar to pico de gallo, and indeed it is. Just like pico de gallo, it dumps a lot of liquid once salted and tossed with lime juice, but in this case that's okay: just drain it off before spooning the marinated vegetables on top of the fried fish.
The final dish is so colorful and celebratory, it's fun just looking at it. Dig in, though, scooping up pieces of onion and tomato with each piece of seafood, and you'll love it even more, all that tart freshness balancing out the heavier fried parts.
If you have it in you to do a little more deep frying, some fried yuca on the side is practically required (you can fry it first and then keep it warm in a low oven).
I'm telling you, this is the best fried fish dish I've ever eaten. Although, I'll admit to being like a parent—my favorite is always whichever one is in front of me at the moment. Ask me over a plate of those Ipswich clams what the best fried fish dish is in the world, and I may give you a very different answer.