A Savoury Snack from Singapore: Ikan Bilis Goreng

I often feel that the world divides into those who love strong, salty, fishy flavours such as anchovies and those who loathe them. I am very firmly in the former camp, perhaps because that salty fishy taste is a key flavour in South-East Asian food; one only has to think of blachan (shrimp paste) or fish sauce to see what I mean.

This recipe for ikan bilis goreng uses ikan bilis, tiny, dried whole fish which in London one can find sold in packets in Chinese supermarkets or Thai food shops. For those who baulk at the idea of eating whole fish (however small) they are sold both head on and headless. During my guided tours of Chinatown’s food shops I often point them out and explain that these little silvery-grey dried fish can be transformed into a tasty snack – whereupon waves of polite scepticism radiate back at me.

Malay anchovies

Ikan bilis


Let me, therefore, share with you how to cook ikan bilis goreng (ie ‘fried’ ikan bilis). It’s a very simple dish in which the ikan bilis are deep-fried. I deep-fry them twice to really crisp them up. Often ikan bilis are served simply deep- fried, then seasoned with salt and sugar. They can also, however, be given extra flavour by frying them with a chilli sambal paste. I like using a simple, traditional flavouring paste, made from onion seasoned with chilli powder and turmeric and a sprinkling of sugar as the ikan bilis fry.

Frying ikan bilis with onion paste

Frying ikan bilis with onion paste

I serve ikan bilis cooked this way with drinks at parties and they always vanish. There is something extraordinarily more-ish about them. It’s to do with the salty-sweet flavour, created by adding sugar to salty dried fish. The chilli kick, lurking in the background, adds to the allure. There’s also something about the texture – the yielding peanuts combined with the crisp yet tough texture of the dried fish – which is deeply satisfying.

ikan bilis goreng

ikan bilis goreng

Ikan bilis goreng

Oil for deep-frying

100g ikan bilis

1 onion, peeled and chopped

1 tsp chilli powder

½ tsp ground turmeric

3 tsp sugar

200g roast peanuts

Add oil into a saucepan or a deep frying pan to a depth of around 2.5cm and heat through.

Add in the ikan bilis and deep-fry for a couple of minutes over a medium heat, then remove with a slotted spoon and drain on kitchen paper.

Return the ikan bilis to the hot oil and fry again until golden-brown and crispy. Remove with a slotted spoon and drain on kitchen paper.

Blend the chopped onion, chilli powder and turmeric into a paste (I use my trusty Waring ProPrep for this).

Heat 2 tbsp of the oil used for deep-frying in a large, heavy-based frying pan. Add in the onion paste and fry, stirring, for 1-2 minutes until it smells fragrant.

Add in the ikan bilis and fry, stirring, to coat the fish in the onion mixture. Add in the peanuts, mixing well.

Sprinkle the sugar evenly over the fish and peanuts and fry, stirring, for 3-4 minutes, making sure that all the fish and peanuts are thoroughly coated in the onion paste. Spread out the ikan bilis mixture on a tray lined with kitchen paper and set aside to cool.

Serve the ikan bilis a pre-dinner nibble with drinks such as a sprightly gin and tonic with ice and or use in nasi lemak, a Malaysian coconut rice dish (for which recipe watch this blog!).