Smelt are little anadromous schooling fish (meaning they migrate from freshwater to saltwater) that spawn in rivers and live their lives at sea, much the same way shad, striped bass, and salmon do. They look like bait—and they are, actually. The small four to seven-inch fish are silver with a translucent green and silver back.
The fish are eaten whole—including skin, head and tail—and the flesh is delicate and mild-tasting, as well as a bit oily. The most common preparation is to fry them, either in a batter or simply with a dusting of flour. Smelt are mostly sold frozen because of how perishable they are, but if you are lucky enough to find yourself with fresh ones, you have the makings of a fantastic fried feast. As a bonus, they're also high in omega-3 fatty acids!
Smelt are vastly underfished, according to many seafood watchdog groups. This means you can eat lots of them in good conscience, and various species are available all over the world. Found along the Atlantic coast and the most widely distributed is the rainbow smelt. The most common on the Pacific coast is whitebait smelt. Whitebait is a catch-all term for a number of species, including surf smelt, night smelt, and the fatty eulachon—the latter so rich the Indians used them for making candles, thus their common name "candlefish."
Frozen smelt are widely available in supermarkets. They are always flash-frozen and come in big bags, so you just grab as much as you need—six to seven per person for an appetizer, twice that for the main course—thaw in the fridge and fry away.
No other fish fits the frying pan so well. You will find smelt prepared in other ways, and they are superb skewered and grilled like anchovies over hardwoods, but there is nothing quite like a good ole' smelt fry. Batters differ from place to place, but the key here is using a light batter—like tempura batter—otherwise, you overwhelm this delicate, soft fish.
Alternatively, you can season flour, toss the smelt in for a quick coating and fry them that way. With just a hint of spice and crust, these little delicacies fly off the plate. An example of such a delicacy is Classic Fried Whitebait With Aioli.
Smelt are small, and any fish smaller than six inches really should be eaten whole—head, guts, tail and all. For those of you who are a little squeamish, don't worry—all you taste is the rich flavor of the meat, plus a pleasing soft crunch from the bones, which will not stick in your throat.
If, however, eating a whole fish disturbs you, you can cut the heads off with a quick diagonal slice from the top of the head toward the fins on the bottom of the fish. This way you will be free of both the head and guts. (You may want to do this on smelt larger than six inches regardless.)
Give smelt a try. They are easy to love, easy to cook and let's face it—they're perfect fried, eaten with your fingers and dipped in either mustard or your choice of sauce: tartar, cocktail or hot sauce.