Related to the much larger salmon, smelt are small silver fish about 6-10 inches long (about the size of a herring) and are found on the Pacific and Atlantic coast. The smelt dwells in bays and estuaries along the Atlantic coast then migrates to freshwater to spawn.
The smelt run was cause for the establishment of smelt dipping, an annual recreational event for coastal American families. Smelt runs were unpredictable, and as soon as someone spotted the first signs of the fish, everyone would rush to the river with their nets.
For the Native Americans, the return of the smelt in the spring meant the preservation of life for thousands of their people, hence the nickname “salvation fish.” Smelt is a nutrient rich source of food and was a valuable commodity to the tribes along the river.
Part of the reason smelt was so highly treasured was due to the high percentage of oil in it (20% by weight). Unlike other fish its lipids “are solid at room temperature, with the consistency and color of butter.” The Native Americans would produce a fine grease from the fish and trade with the tribes further inland.
Today the smelt holds intrinsic value as a tasty fish with a rich history. According to a classic fish cookbook, Modern Cookery,
Smelts when quite fresh have a perfume resembling that of a cucumber, and a peculiarly delicate and agreeable flavour when dressed.”
For the smelt gourmet, a great smelt fry is one that takes the smelt — bones and all — and seasons with salt and pepper, breads with flour, and fries it in fat. The smelt fish is rich in omega-3 fatty acids, of course.
This simple adaptation of the classic recipe is a crowdpleaser. Most people can eat 15-20 smelt in one sitting so keep this in mind when you’re planning dinner. This is also a great recipe for the great outdoors.
- 2 pounds whole fresh smelt, cleaned and heads removed
- Salt & freshly ground black pepper to taste
- 1/2 cup all-purpose flour
- 1/2 cup fresh lemon juice
- 1/2 cup coconut oil or canola oil
- 2 lemons, cut into 8 wedges
Rinse cleaned smelt under cold running water and pat dry with paper towels. Sprinkle fish cavities with salt and pepper. Place flour in a shallow dish. In another shallow dish, pour the lemon juice, dip both sides of the smelt in lemon juice, then coat both sides with flour.
In a large frying pan over medium-high heat, heat oil, add the smelt and fry for 2 to 3 minutes, turning once, or until fish is lightly browned and flakes readily when prodded with a fork.
Remove from pan and drain on paper towels. Place smelt on a platter, garnish with lemon wedges, and serve immediately.