Freshly caught smelt prepared two ways: In the foreground, the fish was rolled in polenta. The smelt in back was dusted in seasoned flour. The fish were pan fried, wrapped in bacon and placed on whole leaves of Romain lettuce to be eaten from head to tail, bones and all. A sprig of asparagus and a few dollops of bright orange flying fish roe (tobiko) finishes the lettuce taco.
As I write this, one of the small rivers flowing into Resurrection Bay is jammed full of smelt. Specifically Thaleichthys pacificus, commonly referred to as hooligans. The AFS (American Fisheries Society) has settled on the name eulachon (pronounced you-luh-chawn), from the Chinook Indian name for the fish. Early west coast explorers and settlers called them candlefish because the spawning fish are so full of fat (about 15% of body weight) that when dried, they can be lit and will burn like a candle.
In the foreground: Polenta is especially coarse cornmeal. Seasoned with salt and pepper, rolling smelt in polenta gives these soft-fleshed fish a nice crunch when pan friend. In the back: another way to prepare smelt for the frying pan is by dropping them into a Ziplock bag containing seasoned flour and giving them a few shakes. Tarragon, fennel, marjoram and salt and pepper are a good start when seasoning these fish. Tongs make this a neat job. Note the asparagus in the pan on the stove.
The meat and bones of eulachons are quite soft. So soft, in fact, that when pan fried, the bones are barely noticeable. Their flavor is wonderful, but they definitely benefit from the addition of some crunch.
When the smelt are running in a river with a healthy population, getting enough for a meal or two is easy. On large rivers, a long-handled net might be necessary. But on this river, the fish were thick and close to shore. Two scoops of the net, and we had all the fish we needed.
Like their relatives, the salmon, eulachon are anadromous. They spend most of their life in the ocean, feeding on plankton, and then return to their natal streams and rivers to spawn, after which they die. Males arrive first and comprise virtually all the fish in the early part of the run. Later the females show up. Ideally, it’s the females you want, as a fresh fish laden with ripe eggs is a delicacy.
The males are quite good, too. In either case, cleaning these small fish (they average about eight inches/20 centimeters) is a simple matter of rinsing them in clean, cold water. There is no need to gill, gut or scale them.
A seemingly endless school of eulachons makes its way up an Alaskan river.