Sarasota smoked fish dip
Smoked fish Dip. Photo by Robin Draper.
Smoked mullet. Photo by Robin Draper.
Smoked mullet. Photo by Robin Draper.
Mullet fisherman hauling in mullet. Photo by Robin Draper.
Mullet fisherman hauling in mullet. Photo by Robin Draper.
Mullet running in schools. Photo by Robin Draper.
Mullet running in schools. Photo by Robin Draper.

Sarasota smoked fish dip

Smoked fish dip is a classic appetizer you’ll find in many of the restaurants on Florida’s Gulf Coast

Sarasota is not only a haven for fresh Gulf of Mexico seafood, with many local restaurants serving the fresh catch right from the sea, but there’s also a special appetizer that is a perfect starter to your meal.

Take a Dip

Smoked fish dip, traditionally accompanied with Saltine crackers, is a tasty prelude to a dinner of local seafood made from the freshest catch. Local smoked fish such as mullet, amberjack, mahi-mahi, grouper, Spanish mackerel and kingfish produces dips in a variety of flavors. Oily fish make the best candidates for smoking, retaining its moisture through the lengthy smoking process. It generally takes 6-8 hours to smoke the fish before combining it with the other ingredients in a dip recipe.

Most seafood establishments and markets efficiently use every part of the whole fish. Fish filets for the dinner entrée, the fish skeleton for stock to make tasty seafood stews and chowders, and the unused smaller pieces of fish not used as fillets, that are often smoked and used to make dip.

Recipes vary from restaurant to restaurant. But no matter what fish dip you enjoy, the recipe probably includes some combination of the following ingredients: smoked fish, mayonnaise, scallions, celery, peppers, dill pickles, lemon juice, and sometimes cream cheese or sour cream, relish or capers, and seasonings.

Ode to a Local Classic: Smoked Mullet Dip

If there is a local classic fish dip, it is undoubtedly smoked mullet. Best enjoyed in the fall, just before the offshore spawning migration, when the meat is the fattest, it’s the time of year when roadside signs boasting “smoked mullet” pop up along rural roadways. Fishermen sell smoked mullet, the essential ingredient for the dip, directly from the smokers as wisps of deliciously pungent smoke draw people who line up for this “old Florida” favorite.

What is mullet? If you spend time in or on local waters then you’re likely to have spotted fish jumping. Chances are that it is mullet. No one really knows why they jump -maybe they are trying to escape a predator, or perhaps clean their gills. Whatever the reason, they are great leapers. Mullet are often seen swimming in schools, are herbivores, and are commonly found up and down Florida’s coastlines and waterways. The fish has a white flesh, rich and nutty with high oil content. Mullet is caught by net, and while some see it only as “bait fish” and others consider it a “trash fish” it is very popular with locals and local chefs are catching on, some heralding its attributes through new creative recipes.

Always a favorite with native Floridians, mullet can be cooked a variety of ways - smoked, fried, pan-fried, baked or broiled. Mullet dip recipes are passed through the generations and are treasured secrets. But one thing is for sure, most die-hard locals agree on one thing, “it must be cooked fresh,” and never frozen.

In Japan, and other international markets, mullet is prized for its roe, known as “bottarga” and prepared as a salt-cured, sun-dried delicacy. This has become a growing industry segment in Florida, especially in the fishing village of Cortez, on the north edge of Sarasota Bay, because it commands a hefty price in overseas markets.

Sarasota's Best Dip Spots

Owen's Fish Camp
Owen's Fish Camp

In downtown Sarasota, Owen’s Fish Camp, set in a 1923 cottage located in Burn’s Court, is known for its “old Florida” southern style cooking. Owen’s always has smoked dip on the menu made from a combination of mullet, amberjack and mahi-mahi adding mayonnaise, sour cream, shallots, and green onions.

Mullet dip is served as a (free) starter to any meal or with a cocktail at Walt’s Seafood Market and Restaurant and is also available in the market to take home. Walt’s smokes its fish on the premise and has been making its dip for four generations, keeping the family recipe a secret all that time. Brett Wallin, owner of Walt’s, smokes his fish using oak and citrus wood smoking at a low temperature – mullet, Spanish mackerel, kingfish and mahi right behind the restaurant.

Another local restaurant that smokes its own fish is Captain Eddie’s Seafood Restaurant in Nokomis. You can always spot a good fresh seafood restaurant when it is attached to a seafood market so that when you’re done with your meal, you can take more home. That means seafood comes in fresh, is sold fresh and whatever is on the menu is fresh. Behind Eddie’s a smoker smokes fresh fish every 2-3 days for its dip. Smoked mahi is the fish dip of this month. Ingredients include mahi, celery, tartar sauce, pickle relish and spices, served with tortilla chips. Captain Eddie’s offers free tastes of its smoked fish dip in the market, available for purchase.

Lakewood Ranch has a fairly new Pincher’s Crab Shack. It is part of a Florida restaurant chain headquartered in Ft. Myers, and known for serving fresh seafood – especially fresh blue crab, stone crab and grouper. Pincher’s grouper dip, from the popular Gulf Coast fish, is made by the Island Crab Company located on Pine Island, near Ft. Myers, and has a little “kick” with ingredients of salsa, cream cheese, sour cream, bell pepper and onions.

Seafood lovers who want to cook at home can get it fresh at Maggie’s Seafood, a popular purveyor at four local Sarasota County Farmer’s Markets. Maggie’s sells and serves fresh local seafood. The fresh fish dip uses a combination of whatever is “fresh” at the time. Maggie’s always has dip on hand for purchase, but call ahead if you want something for a special occasion.

Florida native Robin Draper is a columnist and owner of the award-winning “Blog of the Year” and “Best Travel Blog” and website, AuthenticFlorida.com, that features travel and lifestyle topics.

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Completed Kumquat Cake. Photo by Robin Draper.
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