I have distant memories of being a small child, in a pub garden in Surrey with my parents, when I first discovered the dish that is a plate of tiny little fried fish which you ate whole; whitebait. I became inwardly obsessed with them, always longing to find them on the menu when eating out, waiting for that crunchy little fish that I could souse with vinegar and devour whole. In later life this eating-seafood-whole obsession was overtaken by the discovery of soft-shell crab, something I first tried in Singapore and have since longed to see make an appearance on more menus, allowing me to grab my hit when possible.
Then, when I was last in the fishmongers I noticed a large tub of sprats nestling amongst the various other marine bounty on display, and I pondered if they were any relation to whitebait, or if they could be eaten whole. They were great value at £3.99/kg, so I bought half a kilo to take home for lunch. Some research online told me that these little fellas could be cleaned, or eaten whole, but in a moment of creeping squeamishness I opted to clean, de-head and butterfly them. But now, writing this, I feel as though I’ve let myself down, so I have promised myself that next time, I’ll do them whole.
This simple preparation allows them to be dregdged and well covered in flour and spices then fried very quickly over a high heat, to crisp them up and give that little bit of texture, without resorting to heavy, battered, deep fried cooking. The only regret I have is not getting some coriander leaves to finish it off, as sprinkling some chopped coriander over the top once cooked would really finish this dish off. To accompany I made a simple salad of mixed leaves, tomatoes, sliced fennel and dijon vinaigrette, plus a chilli and olive sourdough breadstick picked up from the market. The crispy, oily fish alongside the sharp vinegary side salad played off well against the hint of coriander and cumin in the coating and the fennel in the salad.
Pan-fried spiced sprats with a fennel salad
By Gavin Wren
Serves 2 as a main
40g plain flour (any type; wheat, spelt etc)
2 teaspoons coriander seeds
2 teaspoons cumin seeds
1 lime, sliced into wedges for squeezing
Vegetable oil, for frying
100g mixed leaves
4 medium tomatoes, sliced
1 bulb of fennel, sliced
3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon white wine vinegar
1 teaspoon dijon mustard
1) Chop all of the heads off, just behind the gills.
2) Slice the belly open from the hole to the rear of the fish to the front, and scrape out the guts.
3) Stand the fish ‘upright’, with it’s belly on the chopping board and press the spine down to the chopping board, from the front of the fish to the tail. Turn the fish over and lift the backbone out, leaving a ‘butterflied’ sprat.
Spread the salad leaves, tomato and fennel between two bowls. Mix the olive oil, vinegar and mustard in a glass/mug/shaker and pour over the salad.
Put the spices in a small saucepan over a low heat, until they become fragrant, then put in a pestle and mortar and grind to powder. Put the flour on a plate, add the spices and mix it all up until combined.
Heat a large frying pan over a high heat and add a few glugs of vegetable oil. Keep the bottle close by as you may need to add more to the pan if it becomes dry as you cook the fish. At this point, get your bowls close to the hob, plus a serving plate with a couple of pieces of kitchen roll on. Take a sprat, press both sides into the flour, so that it’s covered in flour, then place it skin side down in the pan. Add more floured sprats to the pan in a clockwise direction until you have completed the circle. Leave for a minute then slowly turn them all over in the same direction that you added them to the pan and leave for another minute.
Remove from the pan and pile onto the plate with kitchen roll and squeeze the lime over the top when eating them.