This is a classic Japanese delicacy, but one that rarely shows up on the English side of the menu in Japanese restaurants in America. Here’s my opportunity to rectify the situation and give you a chance to sample one of those mysterious dishes usually reserved for special customers only. I hope you enjoy it as much as they do.
The Japanese usually keep the heads and tails of smelts intact, just gutting the belly cavity, but you may be happier removing the heads and tails, along with the guts. Rinse the cleaned fish thoroughly in salted water. (The water should taste briny, like the ocean.) Gently pat the fish dry, inside and out, then dust them in the cornstarch.
In a wok or deep-fat fryer, heat the oil to approximately 375 degrees. Test by dropping a pinch of cornstarch into the oil. It should sink ever so slightly, surface, and disperse immediately, sizzling but not coloring. Deep fry the fish, two or three at a time, for 1½—2 minutes. (Smelts with heads and tails require the longer time.) Drain the fish well on paper towels and transfer them to a ceramic or glass container just large enough to allow the fish to lie submerged in the pickling sauce.
In a small saucepan combine the pickling sauce ingredients, except for the chili pepper. Heat, stirring until the sugar is dissolved. Remove the pan from the stove. Break the pepper pod in half and discard the seeds if you wish to keep the fish just pleasantly spicy. If your tastes run toward the incendiary, keep the seeds as well. Break the pepper pod into several small pieces and stir them into the sauce. Pour the sauce over the fish and, once there’s no longer any steam, cover them snugly with clear plastic wrap and refrigerate. Pickle the fish for at least 6 hours and up to 72. (The extended pickling time will the bones but intensify the piquant taste markedly.)
Just before serving, trim the scallion and chop very fine. Rinse the chopped scallions under cold water and gently squeeze dry.
A single serving is usually two or three fish. Lift the fish from the pickling sauce and place them on small flanged plates, garnishing each with a sprinkling of chopped scallions.
© 1985 Elizabeth Andoh. All rights reserved.