The smelt sweetfish, or ayu in Japanese, is a fish for all seasons. They are most associated with the spring and summer, caught as they ascend from the coastal waters to spawn in the spring in rivers and streams. There are many methods to catching this fish, including the live-lure fishing method called tomo-zuri, the ancient art of cormorant fishing.
If you're new to eating whole little fish (indeed, it took me a bit to get used to it) this is a wonderful starter recipe. They are low in mercury and packed with essential oils, vitamins (B and D, phosphorus, calcium) and omega-3s. Really, they are a super food their small relatives are much more plentiful in the ocean than the more popular tuna and salmon. It really is a pity that they are so often overlooked. Why not give them a try?
5 to 7 small, fresh, cleaned smelt
1 cup all-purpose flour
Vegetable oil for frying
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon aonori (powdered seaweed; or substitute finely chopped fresh parsley)
A pinch of white sugar
1 large egg
1 scant cup ice-cold water
Grated daikon (optional)
Tempura dipping sauce or ponzu
Small frying pan, small bowl, paper towels
1. Wash the smelt in salted water, and dry well with a paper towel. Coat lightly with flour, and set aside.
2. Heat the vegetable oil to 170°, enough to coat the bottom of the pan by ½- to 1-inch deep.
3. Mix remaining flour, baking powder, aonori, sugar, egg and cold water. Once combined, coat smelt in batter.
4. Panfry smelt in 170º oil until golden brown. Set aside, and let drain.
5. Serve with grated daikon (if desired), and tempura dipping sauce or ponzu.
Note: If smelt are not readily available, try small trout, mackerel, or shad (larger). This dish is best eaten fresh.