Sprats, sometimes called by the more generic name of whitebait, are easier to cook and eat than you’d think. Deep fried sprats can be eaten whole but it’s easy to remove heads and guts. A chilli dip to go with them is a must!
First things first: all sprats are whitebait but not all whitebait are sprats. I think. It could be the other way round. Anyway, they are the stupidly cheap, clean and bright tiny fishes that are a complete treat in terms of price, ease of preparing and taste.
You might think, like I used to, that they are full of bones and impossible to eat. You might think ‘eeeww, I’m not eating fish head!’ - I did. Like kippers or jellied eels, I’d never grace them with a second glance on the fish stall. Who on earth eats that stuff? So I’m not entirely sure what made me order them for a starter in a restaurant a few months ago. Maybe it was the set menu I was keen on that had sprats in starters; maybe I wanted to swap or share; or I was challenging the (really good) restaurant to deliver the goods out of barely edible products – either way I got a mini bucketful of tails sticking out in the air.
Reader, I ate them. Heads and all and I looked for more.
So – time to debunk the bias. Bones are not a problem – they are even less discernible than in salted anchovies and the main bone pulls out like a dream if you want to discard it. Heads are certainly edible but it’s not a problem to lop them off before cooking as you’ll see in the recipe instructions. Sprats are nicer than sardines and cheaper than anchovies. And super-good healthwise being, albeit tiny, oily fish full of omega-3 fatty acids. Sprats should be on the menus everywhere!
The very next time I saw them in the market, I naturally bought a kilo for something like £4. The only thing that still bothered me was whether they were sustainable and if it was all right to eat tiny fishes instead of letting them grow into big halibuts. My fishmonger says they are and it is, but then he would. Thankfully the Marine Conservation Society agrees, giving them a ‘Best Choice’ rating. Phew.
spratsServings: 2-4Time: 30 minutes
- ½ kilo (1 pound) fresh sprats
- 100g (1 cup) plain flour
- 1 tsp smoked salt
- 1 tsp smoked paprika
- 1 tsp smoked chilli powder
- 1 tsp garlic powder
- 1 tsp tomato powder (optional)
- 1 litre oil, for frying
- mayonnaise, sriracha sauce, sweet chilli sauce, to serve
1. You can leave the sprats intact, head on and guts in and eat them whole. For the squeamish, the easiest technique is to lop off heads and drag out the intestines as you do it.
2. Lay a sprat on a chopping board. Cut the head starting from the back side and go easy at the end, belly side. Pull the head off gently and most of the guts will pull out as well. If not, scrape them out gently from the cavity.
3. Throw the prepared sprats into a bowl of cold water to rinse them when all are trimmed. Lay them out on paper towels to dry.
4. Stir the spices into the flour in a bowl. Toss the sprats to coat in the seasoned flour.
5. Heat the oil in a deep frying pan or wok to 180C/350F. Working in batches, fry the sprats in oil until they all float to the surface and the skin is blistered.
6. Drain on paper towels; serve with a dip of sriracha mayo or sweet chilli.