In Bangladesh, some commonly consumed, indigenous, freshwater small fish species (eaten whole with bone, head and eyes) such as mola (Amblypharyngodon mola) are nutrient-dense, containing preformed vitamin A as retinol and especially 3,4-dehydroretinol. The objective of the present randomised, controlled efficacy study was to evaluate the effects of mola on biochemical indicators of vitamin A status. Children (n 196), aged 3–7 years, with serum retinol 0·36–0·75 μmol/l, were randomly allocated to one of three treatment groups to receive a daily test meal (6 d/week for 9 weeks) of rice and vegetable curry (no vitamin A) ad libitum and 50 g fish curry consisting of: (1) mola, 600 retinol activity equivalents (RAE) (using 40 % biological activity of 3,4-dehydroretinol isomers) (experimental group, n 66); (2) rui (Labeo rohita), a large fish (no vitamin A), with added retinyl palmitate, 600 RAE (positive control group, n 65); or (3) rui, 0 RAE (negative control group, n 65). The nutrient compositions of the dishes were analysed. After 9 weeks, no significant treatment effects were observed for serum retinol (P = 0·52) and retinol-binding protein (P = 0·81) in the experimental group compared with the negative control, whereas the positive control improved significantly (P < 0·001). The present results do not suggest conversion of the large amount of 3,4-dehydroretinol in mola curry to retinol. Further research on the functional effect of mola in humans is needed. Mola is a nutrient-dense animal-source food, rich in haem Fe, Zn and especially Ca, thus consumption of mola in Bangladesh should continue to be encouraged.