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I’ve never met a Japanese dish that I didn’t like, and I remember my first encounter with this appetizer at Inaka, a little Japanese restaurant in Bacolod, long time ago. Small bowls of this tiny fish came to the table while we were waiting for our order. I popped some in my mouth and the spicy-sweet, crunchy morsels exploded on my tongue, opening the palate for the meal to come.

Anchovies (our local dilis) come in various sizes. I like the smaller ones when I can get them. At home, we buy the dried, salted kind and we usually just fry them briefly in oil. They’re a nice accompaniment to sauteed mung beans (monggo ginisa) or beef nilaga.

Only when I had my own kitchen did I remember the spicy-sweet anchovy version and decided to try making it myself. It was a nice bit of serendipity, since I had just recently bought a pack of powdered red chilies and thought this is just the thing to go with the dilis.

We had a bowlful of the little fishes to start off tonight’s dinner, and the heat of the dish caused a liter of Coke to virtually evaporate. This appetizer would also be a great pairing with ice-cold beer. The brown sugar caramelised with the chili powder and salt, coating the dilis with a sweet-spicy, salty crust. The toasted sesame seeds added a nutty crunch. They’re addicting! Aaaahhhnnnchovies, alright.

Spicy-Sweet Anchovies

1 tsp. sesame seeds

2 Tbsps. cooking oil

1 clove garlic, finely chopped

1/4 kilo dried salted anchovies (dilis)

1/2 tsp. rock salt

pinch of fresh ground black pepper

1 tsp. powdered red chillies to start (adjust to taste)

3 Tbsps. brown sugar to start (adjust to taste)

Start by toasting the sesame seeds in a hot pan over low heat. Shake the pan to toast the seeds evenly. When they turn golden brown and aromatic (about 2 minutes), remove from heat and transfer to a bowl to cool.

In the same pan over medium heat, add in the cooking oil. Put in the garlic and fry until just brown. Add in the anchovies. Stir-fry for a minute, making sure to cook them evenly. Sprinkle with salt and pepper, and then add in the powdered red chilies, distributing evenly throughout. Add in the brown sugar. Mix well to coat the anchovies. Once the brown sugar has caramelised, turn off the heat.

Toss the anchovies with the sesame seeds while still in the pan. Transfer the anchovies into a serving bowl and let stand for a few minutes before serving. This will be hot!