There are few greater pleasures and gastronomically correct senses of place in Spain than sitting by the quietly lapping shoreline of the Mediterranean whilst nibbling on plates of freshly fried fish, sprinkled with some tart drops of lemon juice, and served with a superbly chilled bottle of white wine or manzanilla.

Pescado frito translates literally as ‘fried fish’. And if we are talking about fried fish, we have to be talking about Andalucía, and perhaps mention their regional name for it: pescaíto frito – little fried fishies. If you go anywhere along the south coast the roads and shores will be lined with bars offering crisped up marine life by the plateful. The sun-drenched white towns of that stereotypical part of the country are famed for it and my goodness if it doesn’t make you feel lucky for living in a country who love picking things out of their oceans and seas.

That being said, the name ‘fried fish’ couldn’t sound less specific and more vague if it tried. You find it as a small plate ‘tapa’ size, as a starter for a meal or as a full-sized ración for sharing with hungry friends and family around the table. So what exactly is pescado frito and where does it come from?

The origins:

The story of this most simple of dishes appears to begin with the Sephardic Jews – Sephardi coming from the Hebrew word for Spanish. On the Shabbat, starting late Friday night and finishing on Saturday night, it is common to have fish for the late breakfast or lunch after the Saturday morning synagogue services. One of the ideas being that deep-frying in the vegetable oil keeps the fish crunchy and crisp even when eaten cold.

It was most common in the ‘old days’ for the Jews to consume tuna and anchovies. Religion being as gastronomically odd as it is, the only fish allowed were tuna, anchovies, hake, sea-bream, sardines and barbel. Though, of course, nowadays Spain doesn’t follow that rule and the world of pescado frito is now a school of other fish.

In Ancient Rome people ate fried fish, in Medieval times people ate fried fish, all over Spain people eat fried fish. But, it’s home really is still in the south.

It’s not only Spain mind; southern France, coastal Italy and Greece all eat fried fish. Then we have Latin America: Chile, Colombia, Venezuela all tuck into pescado frito. Indeed even that stalwart classic of British cuisine, fish and chips, can thank the Belgians for their chips and the Spanish Jews, who came to England in the 16th century, for their fish. We also have whitebait, but that’s less ubiquitous and these days days only seems to find its home in good country pubs.

The dish:

Before we get to the fish, first we need to prepare our ‘batter’. It’s a light flour toss style of batter, not a gloopy English chippy style. Flour, beaten eggs and salt. Sometimes the eggs aren’t necessary, it just dictates how thick the covering will be on the fish. Some bars also tip in a little beer foam that adds a lighter crispiness to the final product as well as a hint of something savoury and malty. Yeast and even a touch of milk could also be added for a similar effect.

Prepare the fish – making sure they are completely clean, toss them in the flour, shake off the excess and dunk them in the deep fryer – again making sure the oil is clean and very hot. Olive oil is best, but any oil can be used. About three minutes maximum until the little swimmers are golden and cooked. Also make sure there aren’t too many beasties crowding the oil when frying as otherwise the temperature will drop and you’ll end up will floppy fish. And that would incur evil glances in Andalucía.

Serve with a couple of slices of lemon. That’s it. Done.

Some fish products may be soaked prior in adobo – similar to an escabeche – which is a stock of spices and herbs like paprika, salt, garlic, oregano. This adds an inherent tangy quality to the flesh and seems to enhance its juiciness too.

There are, however, unwritten rules concerning which marine morsels can constitute pescado frito. There shall be no sea bass or cod here, no salmon or trout. Generally the rule seems to be ‘they have to come from the sea and, if possible, be small and, without doubt, be as fresh as possible’. The classic selection is thus:

  • Boquerones – anchovies
  • Sardinas – sardines
  • Salmonetes – striped red mullet
  • Cazón en adobo/bienmesabe – marinated dogfish
  • Calamares – calamari legs, rings, ring pieces.
  • Choco – chunks of cuttlefish
  • Chanquetes – transparent goby
  • Gambas – prawns
  • Chopitos/puntillas/pulpitos/choquitos – bitesized squid/cuttlefish
  • Acedía – wedge sole
  • Pijotas – European hake
  • Ortiguilla – sea anemone

Where I eat:

Madrid – Cervecería Arganzuela (Calle Arganzuela, 3), Casa Toni (Calle Cruz, 14), Sanlúcar (Calle San Isidro Labrador, 14), Bar Lambuzo (Calle de las Conchas, 9).

Malaga (Pedregalejo) – Los Espigones (Paseo Marítimo el Pedregal, 50).

Cadiz – Freiduría Las Flores (Plaza Topete, 4), La Despensa (Plaza Escritor Ramón Solís, 9).

What I drink with it:

With lightly fried seafood like this you have to go white and you have to go chilled. But for a truly transcendental experience choose a cold bottle of fino or manzanilla. A classic would be La Gitana from Bodegas Hidalgo.

What I listen to:

Ecos Flamenco (Sequidilla) – Sabicas

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