I spotted fresh and cleaned smelt in our regular grocery store one day. Smelt is a small fish and, in Japan, a type of smelt is called “Karafuto shishamo” which is a common substitute for real “Shishamo” from Hokkaido. Capelin is also in the same family. The smelt spends most of its life in the sea but, like salmon, it swims up river to spawn. The ones I got were most likely fresh water smelt from the Great Lakes. In Japan, egg-bearing females are the most valued. None of the smelt in my “catch” appeared to have eggs. As usual, Japanese and English fish names are difficult to sort out.
The smelt I got were already cleaned (gutted and head off) but not dried like the ones in Japan. The most popular way to cook smelt here in the U.S. (if you are the type of person who would even consider eating smelt) is deep fried. Like shishamo, you can eat every thing including bones, tails and fins. I pondered how to cook them and decided to make a sort of tempura using a thin batter.
Smelt: This is fresh smelt, head off and cleaned. I got 1 lb which is good for 4 generous appetizer size servings.
Tempura batter: I used cake flour (4-5 tbs) and cold seltzer water (add and mix until it forms a thin batter) with a pinch of salt mixed in.
I heated peanut oil in a frying pan (1 inch deep) to 350F (180C) on medium flame. I dipped the smelt in the batter and deep fried it for 3-4 minutes turning over once.
I served this with a wedge of lemon, deep fried parsley, and green tea salt. You could make this in kara-age 唐揚げ (coated with potato starch) or more Western style with seasoned flour or cornmeal and some kind of dipping sauce as well. This was a perfect drinking snack and also a good source of calcium. This goes well with any drink.