What are Dried Anchovies or Ikan Bilis?

Dried Anchovies, Ikan Bilis

Estimated reading time: 2 minutes

Dried Anchovies are a much loved South East Asian ingredient. Known as Ikan Bilis in Malay, they are pungent, smell of the sea and packed with umami notes and flavour.

You’ll find them in a few different sizes too, from the really tiny ones to the ones that are as long as your fingers. You will find them at all Oriental stores, online or otherwise, even Amazon in the UK sells them!

Ikan = fish (in Malay & Indonesian)

How to use dried anchovies?

In many, many endless ways! One of my favourite methods of livening up an Asian meal is to serve it with some fried anchovies. All you do is fry a handful or two in half a cup of hot oil for about a minute until they turn a mid brown colour. They add a deep, salty flavour and a fantastic crunch to any meal. If you happen to have peanuts lying about, fry those up too and be amazed at the affinity between these 2 very humble ingredients.

While dried anchovies are quite commonly used as a garnish or as a side, they can also be cooked more elaborately. Sambal Ikan Bilis is a spicy side dish made with chillies that is a regular accompaniment to many meals and a staple chilli paste or condiment to Nasi Lemak, a coconut rice dish traditionally eaten at breakfast. Recipes for both soon, I promise!

Dried anchovies are also used to make stock for various dishes, like the Korean sundubu-jjigae.

Substitute for Dried Anchovies

No exact substitute, but as far as South East Asian ingredients go, you can get similar Umami notes with dried shrimp (udang kering) or shrimp paste (belacan).

Bonito flakes or Katsuobushi will also make a good substitute, as far as flavour goes.

Outside Asia – I’ve been told that when fried, they are very, very similar to fried bacon in flavour notes and texture. Bacon is certainly overflowing with that required salty, umami aroma, so I reckon, at a pinch, you could use it as an alternative, not really a substitute. I don’t eat pork and its related products, so no confirmation from me on that! If you do, let me know what you think with a comment below.

5 thoughts on “What are Dried Anchovies or Ikan Bilis?”

  1. Wendy Allott

    Oh my goodness you’ve taken me back to my childhood, when I would eat Ikan Bilis by the handful!

  2. Hi,
    I’m Saroj.
    I live in the UK.
    I am looking for ikan bilis but not sure if Amazon sells best quality.
    Please can you help with your advise.

    1. Hi Saroj, the best place to get them is if you have a Chinese shop near you. Then you don’t have to pay p&p. Otherwise, do a search for “asian food store online” and you’ll get lots of results. In the past, I’ve bought from Wing Yip and The Asian Cookshop. Amazon tends to be more expensive. Most of the anchovies I’ve bought here are not the peeled ones, like we would get back in Singapore and Malaysia.
      I hope that helps. Let me know if there’s anything else I can help you with.
      Regards, Lin.

    2. Hi Saroj, perhaps your situation is the same as here in Australia; we can get packets of Dragon and Phoenix brand Ikan Bilis at the 2 giant supermarkets here (Coles, and Woolworths), but the quality is very low – the individual fish look like they have just been unearthed and dusted off at an archaeological site.
      I buy mine at my local Thai grocer that sells stuff for all sorts of southeast asian cookery. The product is from Vietnam, marketed simply as ‘dried headless anchovy’. It’s the same as ‘ikan bilis’.
      Good luck.

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