Atherina, or Mediterranean sand smelt are a species of small fish that can be found in the Mediterranean Sea. In Greece, these small fish are usually battered in a light coating of flour and a bit of salt, deep-fried and consumed whole, perhaps a bit of lemon drizzled over them – the same goes for other small fish such as anchovies (‘gavros’ in Greek) and picarel (‘marida’ in Greek). Yes, you’ve read that right: they are so tiny they can be consumed whole. Tails, heads, bones, guts, fins, everything. They fry up into the most perfect, crispy little bites– almost like fish chips! They’re great as an appetizer or meze with some ouzo or raki on the side. If you can’t go to a Greek fish taverna, or ouzeri at the moment, just bring the taverna to your house with this delicious recipe!
While I think atherina are the tastiest of the small fish, you can, of course, use different types of fresh whitebait for this dish, such as small sprats, small picarel (Spicara Smaris / Μαρίδα (marida) in Greek), small anchovies (Γαύρος (gavros) in Greek), or whichever type of whitebait is available in your location. The only requirement for whichever the fish you use, is that the fish are small enough – around 3 to 6cm in length. Apart from the amazing taste of fresh whitebait, it’s a real plus not having to clean them and they fry up in a minute or two! Of course, the recipe also works for slightly larger fish, but you might need to gut the fish in that case.
Atherina Tiganiti / Αθερίνα Τηγανητή (Greek Fried Smelt / Whitebait)
- 500g fresh atherina / smelt (or other small fish of about 3 to 5cm)
- 200g all-purpose flour
- ½ teaspoon salt + more to taste
- Pinch of white, or black ground pepper, to taste
- About 500ml sunflower oil (or a bit more depending on pan size), for frying
- Lemon cut into wedges, to serve
- About half an hour to an hour before cooking, rinse the smelts in cold water a few times to remove pieces of sand and seaweed. Drain in a colander or sieve and place over a bowl. Leave to drain in the refrigerator until fish are relatively well-dried and you are ready to fry.
- In a bowl, mix flour with ½ teaspoon salt and a pinch of pepper.
- Take fish from the refrigerator and toss a handful of the well-drained fish in the bowl with flour until well coated. Remove flour-coated fish from bowl and place in a (dry) strainer. Shake off excess flour. Continue doing this until all fish are well coated in flour.
- Pour sunflower oil in a high-rimmed skillet, or frying pan (of about 25-26cm, or 10 inches) and heat over medium-high heat until the oil is hot. If the oil is not hot enough, the fish might fall apart or get very oily before turning golden and crispy.
- Use one fish to test if the oil is hot enough; the oil should bubble around the fish and it should fry up crispy and golden within 1 to 2 minutes max. If your oil is hot enough, carefully add a handful of fish and fry them no more than 1 minute to 2 minutes until crispy and golden. Fry fish in batches (!) so that the oil remains hot and the oil doesn't bubble over.
- Remove fried fish from the pan onto a plate with some kitchen paper to soak up excess oil.
- Sprinkle on some more salt according to taste. Serve hot with slices of lemon