Deep-Fried Shishamo (Smelt) Recipe

Mild in taste with a pleasant texture, these crispy smelt are a treat.

Overhead shot of deep-fried shishamo fish on a white plate, sprinkled with pepper. The plate is garnished with two half-wheels of lemon.

Serious Eats / Chichi Wang

Why It Works

  • Frying the fish in a wok requires less oil and keeps splatters to a minimum.
  • Pairing the shishamo with a light dashi-based sauce allows the delicate flavor of the fish to shine through.

When wandering in the seafood section of a Japanese market last week, I came across these little fish and was struck by how nice it feels to be able to eat a whole animal in one bite: headbones, fins, and all. You can't say that for most land animals we eat, unless you count tiny birds and insects.

(The majority of what we talk about is, by default, mammalian for the variety of organs and cuts we eat from pigs and ruminants. The viscera from seafood is more difficult to obtain and more limited in scope, with a few notable exceptions. See this piece for musings on milt.)

Their Japanese name is shishamo (meaning, "willow leaf fish") and they are a type of smelt. That is, from any number of small, silvery fish generally used as bait, but which are really very good to eat on their own.

Close-up of a fried shishamo. The bottom of the fish has ruptured from frying and a sac of roe lies underneath.

Serious Eats / Chichi Wang

In order to want to cook and eat shishamo, you really have to like fish eggs. There is no flesh to speak of and given the size of the fish, no bones to contend with. It's as if the fish are mere vessels for their reproductive matter. When deep-fried in a thin dusting of flour and salt, their bodies are like little ice cream cones of crispy skin encasing a tender nub of cooked caviar.

Mild in taste with a pleasantly grainy texture, the eggs will pair nicely with a sauce of your choosing. I like a light tsuyu or tempura-style dipping sauce so as not to overwhelm the taste of the fish eggs. But they would be very good with ponzu sauce, a mustard sauce, a green herby sauce with parsley, minced garlic, and lemon, or just plain vinegar. Fry 'em up in a matter of minutes, and you have finger food that's pregnant with flavor.

January 2012

Recipe Facts

Active: 20 mins
Total: 20 mins
Serves: 4 to 6 servings

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Ingredients

  • About 10 ounces shishamo or other smelt fish

  • 1/2 cup flour, for dusting

  • 1 teaspoon salt

  • At least 3 cups oil, for frying

For the Dipping Sauce:

  • 1 cup dashi soup stock

  • 1/4 cup mirin

  • 1/4 cup soy sauce

  • 1 tablespoon sugar

  • Sections of lemon, for squeezing over fish

Directions

  1. Wash and dry fish. In a medium bowl, combine flour and salt.

  2. Place dashi, mirin, soy sauce, and sugar in a small sauce pan and mix well. Over medium heat, bring to a simmer and stir, dissolving sugar. Let cool and set aside.

  3. In wok, heat oil to about 350°F (180°C). Have ready a plate lined with paper towels, and the dipping sauce at hand. Lightly dredge each fish in the bowl of flour and salt, shaking off excess salt. Deep-fry for 2 to 3 minutes, until skin is golden brown. Place fried fish on paper towels to soak up oil, then eat immediately with sauce and sections of lemon.

Special Equipment

Wok or another pan suitable for deep-frying

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Nutrition Facts (per serving)
115 Calories
10g Fat
6g Carbs
1g Protein
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Nutrition Facts
Servings: 4 to 6
Amount per serving
Calories 115
% Daily Value*
Total Fat 10g 12%
Saturated Fat 1g 3%
Cholesterol 0mg 0%
Sodium 663mg 29%
Total Carbohydrate 6g 2%
Dietary Fiber 0g 1%
Total Sugars 4g
Protein 1g
Vitamin C 7mg 34%
Calcium 5mg 0%
Iron 0mg 1%
Potassium 71mg 2%
*The % Daily Value (DV) tells you how much a nutrient in a food serving contributes to a daily diet. 2,000 calories a day is used for general nutrition advice.
(Nutrition information is calculated using an ingredient database and should be considered an estimate.)