Fried anchovies are a well-loved treat across various cultures around the world. The fish subspecies vary but the method of preparation and the strong emotional attachment to their taste seem to be universal.
What are Anchovies?
Anchovies are forage fish that swim in large schools as other small bait fish do. They belong to the family Engraulidae and mostly inhabit marine waters, with only a few exceptions to the saltwater environment (in South America).
The European variety has several subspecies native to different basins of water – from the Black Sea, the Mediterranean and the Sea of Azov to the North Sea. They are a popular part of the cuisines of those countries.
How to Fry Anchovies
These steps will guarantee your success regardless of the type of small fry you have. Budget for about a half pound of raw anchovies per person.
First you need to clean and dry the fish which can be as simple as thoroughly rinsing them with cold water and pat drying them with paper towels. If they are bigger than your pinky finger however consider a comprehensive clean – step by step instructions with pictures are included under the recipe card.
After the anchovies are clean and dry follow the steps in the image grid below:
- Mix flour and salt in a bowl and set aside.
- Heat cooking oil to 350 F
- Dredge each fish in flour, shake off excess and gently drop into the hot oil.
- For best results keep batches small. Be sure to maintain a constant temperature of 350 F for the cooking oil.
- Fry until the anchovies turn a deep golden color and remove with a spider or slotted spoon. Drain onto paper towels then serve in paper cones or with fries.
How to Eat Fried Anchovies (and Other Small Fish)
This is the best part. Fried anchovies are finger food and you must pair them with a cold beer. The combination is heavenly.
I grew up eating them as a snack, served in a paper cone or small brown paper bag. Later on I graduated to a portion served with fries and beer. Nothing but a squeeze of lemon juice and a pinch of salt to season them. Of course, hops salt is a great option.
If lemon juice, salt and cold beer are not enough to please you – consider the dips suggested below.
Dips for Fried Anchovies
- Finely chop Italian parsley and dill (to taste, but at least 2 tbsp of each, chopped), mince fresh garlic (to taste) and place in a mixing bowl. Squeeze the juice of one lemon on top, drizzle with olive oil (2-3 tbsp), season with salt and mix.
- Mix mayonnaise, Spanish paprika (to taste) and a squeeze of lemon juice, season with salt.
- Blend sun dried tomatoes (to taste), the olive oil in which the sun dried tomatoes were kept, fresh basil, minced garlic (to taste) and grated Parmesan. Thin out with water as needed.
- Mix a lemon garlic aioli like this one.
- Use traditional fried fish condiments such as tartar sauce or cocktail sauce.
Fried Anchovies as a Beer Garden Food Item
The affinity deep-fried whole anchovies have for cold beer is indisputable.
You can read about how I got to love munching on whole fried fish, head and tails on while growing up in Bulgaria at the bottom of this post. For now I will simply mention that along with fries with feta they are a beer garden menu staple all over Bulgaria, especially along the Black Sea coast.
Fried anchovies (or other small fish such as smelt) simply seasoned with lemon juice and salt make the perfect snack to enjoy with a cold lager.
- 2 lbs small anchovies (or smelt)
- 2 cups flour
- 1/4 cup sea salt
- 2-3 quarts vegetable oil for frying
- 2 lemons for garnish
Clean, rinse and dry the fish.
Heat the oil in a heavy bottomed pan to 350 F. Prepare a paper lined plate or sheet pan to place the fried fish.
Dredge each fish in flour, first on one side then the other. Shake off excess flour and gently drop into frying oil.
Fry no more than a dozen fish at a time, depending on the size of your pan. Fry for about 4 minutes or until the fish begin to turn a deep golden color.
Remove the fish with a spider and place onto the paper lined plate. Season with salt. Proceed with the next batch.
Serve in paper cones or in small paper trays with lemon wedges and (optional) fries and dips. Have cold beer at the ready.
Consult the tips for cleaning small fish in the post accompanying this recipe card.
How to Clean Anchovies and Other Small Fish
If the fish are tiny, under 3 inches, you need not worry too much, you can get away with not thoroughly cleaning them (still need to rinse really well). Any small fish longer than 3 inches should receive your attention.
Optional – you can use your finger tips (nails) to very gently scrape off the thin skin covering the body, head to tail. Do this under running cold water. In our opinion it is not needed when the fish are this small. Between rinsing the fish twice, most of the scales fall off anyways and we are talking about particularly thin skin which becomes deliciously crispy after deep frying.
For this recipe you can remove or leave the heads on. You can also leave the spine, the dorsal fin and the tail. Frying renders them unbelievably crispy and tasty.
If you have reservations about eating the bones, tail, fins and especially the head, remember these two indisputable wive’s tales – (1) everything deep fried tastes great and (2) eating the eyes of a fish will bring you good luck.
Plus, after the fish are fried it is very easy to simply not eat the heads and tails and pull out the spine of any larger ones.
All in all the really essential steps you need to take to clean anchovies are:
- Place the fish in a colander and rinse them very well.
- Using the thumb and index finger tips of one hand hold each fish just under the head, pressing gently. Use the thumb and index fingers of your other hand to perform the cleaning tasks.
- While holding a fish you can (optional) pinch the head and it will snap with a slight to moderate pull. Alternatively – keep the head on and proceed with the next step.
- As shown above, while still holding the fish pinch and gently slit (with your index finger) the very top of the belly and pull out the innards of the fish.
- Clean out all the inside matter then rinse and set aside, move on to the next little guy.
- Once you have cleaned all the fish rinse them thoroughly one more time.
How to Get Rid of the Smell on Your Hands After Cleaning Anchovies or Other Small Fish
Handling and cleaning small fish can literally be a stinky affair. In fact it is pretty much guaranteed that your hands will smell in a most disagreeable manner.
To avoid this wear protective kitchen gloves or if you dislike the feeling/idea of wearing gloves use stainless steel to get rid of the smell from your hands.
Stainless steel is your absolutely BEST bet. Every other method you could have possibly heard of pales in comparison, even if somewhat effective.
You can simply rub your fingers against the sides of the blade of a stainless steel chef’s knife – be very careful if you go this route, or against some other object made of stainless steel. Like the sink faucet. The stainless steel method is so effective in removing offensive odors from the hands that we actually own a stainless steel ‘soap bar’.
We use it whenever we handle garlic, onions, shrimp, fish etc. All that you need to do with one of these stainless soap bars is pretend to be using a real soap bar and bad odors will miraculously be removed from you hands. Totally backed by science by the way.
How to Get Rid of the Fried Anchovies Smell
Even the most ardent fried fish fans will complain about the stubbornly lingering smell after the feast. Ourselves included.
Which is why we urge you to fry outside. Whether you do so on the grill, portable gas stove or even use a small electric stove, do it if you can. Use a deep cast iron pan/pot for best results.
If getting the job done outside is simply not an option consider having the kitchen windows open and running an air purifier while performing the frying act. If you can create a draft by having the windows of two opposing walls open the resulting air flow will help transport the smell out of your space.
After the cooking and the eating are all over take out the trash and consider using Febreeze odor remover. Not trying to promote the brand, not at all, but it is the only product actually formulated to remove/neutralize odors versus masking them. The various ‘freshness’ scents were actually added to its original formula post factum for marketing purposes. The stuff really kills bad smells period.
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How I Came to Love Whole Fried Tiny Fish
When I was a little girl I had to spend the bulk of my summers in Varna, a city by the Black Sea. I always dreaded the experience. I had to stay with a grandmother whom I can only describe as an ill force of nature…if I am nice.
I always resisted being shipped off to Varna and wanted to stay with my grandmother in Sofia instead but, alas, that was not up to me to choose. There were but a few things that helped me go through these looong summers and one was the existence of a man, whom I was told to call ‘uncle’ and who was one of the nicest people I have ever met in my life.
Occasionally he would rescue me from my grandmother and take me to the marry-go-rounds and other attractions in the Varna Sea Garden (huge park stretching for miles along the city coastline) and on long walks across the park, all the way to the zoo or the entire length of the boardwalk. My grandmother hated walking so she never joined.
My uncle Kolio (Nicola) was the only adult I remember who would ask me if I wanted ice cream or popcorn or fries or all the other treats sold along the boardwalk. He always had to face the reprimands of my grandmother for indulging me but chose to let her have her fits and spoiled me anyways. He was a retired commercial ship mechanic who had literally sailed the world and who told me some of the best stories a kid could hear.
It was on those walks and visits to the Sea Garden that I absolutely fell in love with deep-fried whole anchovies. He’d buy us each a cone and I’d devour mine in minutes and he always offered me some of his. He told me all about fish and why it is OK to eat them whole when they are tiny and to this day I love to eat the heads and the tails.
And the smell of fresh caught fried small fish was (and still is) soo alluring. If there was a street food vendor selling fried anchovies all others had no chance:) I literally follow my nose to the source of the tantalizing waft. It happened a few years ago in Vietnam, apparently they have a strong liking for small fried fish too.