The time is white

ELIZABETH LATHAM
Last updated 13:04 19/10/2012
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DON'T BE STINGY: The key to cooking whitebait is to use plenty, and to not overwhelm its delicate fish flavour.

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At the Table

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There are many cultures in the world in which people eat small whole fish. In New Zealand, eating whitebait has deeply ritualised roots in our food culture.

I love to watch the slow rhythm of the whitebait fishermen, with their nets in the mouth of a river or up a creek. The concentration on their faces is obvious, and what a sense of exhilaration they must feel when they pull up the net to find lots of small wriggling translucent fish.

I was told the most fabulous whitebait story the other day by Noel Kennedy, a local tourism operator. Noel was driving in a stream of traffic when he saw a car waiting at a side road to enter the traffic. He slowed down and waved the car in front of him. He carried on to Motueka, where he was motioned to stop by a man on the side of the road.

He pulled over to find it was the man he had allowed into the traffic. For his generosity, Noel was presented with a kilogram of freshly caught whitebait. What a wonderful gift!

I will be letting everyone in front of me from side roads from now on, on the off-chance that I might meet the same fisherman, obviously more intent on the fishing process than the eating if he was happy to give away such a big haul.

If you want to learn more about these wonderful small fish, take a trip some time to the South Westland Visitor Centre in Haast, where the entire physiological, geographical and social history that surrounds whitebait fishing is interpreted in this mecca of whitebaiting, the West Coast of the South Island.

The museum points out, among many other things, that there are five species of fish that make up what we commonly call whitebait. They are inanga, koaro, banded kokopu, giant kokopu and short-jawed kokopu. Inanga is the most common.

As I write this, I have the taste of whitebait in my mouth (for which I paid the going price of $120 a kg) and I hope that I can continue to marvel at the delicate fish taste of fine South Island whitebait every season forever.

Maybe it is the result of their combined life in freshwater and seawater that gives them that taste that is so distinctive and delicious.

The trick with whitebait is to cook them in a way that enhances yet doesn't overpower them, but that does not mean that you can't combine other flavours with them.

The biggest mistake people make is to not use enough whitebait and maybe it is the price that dictates this, but it is better to have them en masse, less often, than to be stingy with them.

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There are certain flavours that really enhance whitebait and my two favourites that may surprise you are jalapeno pepper and coriander. Garlic is great too.

I use all these in very small quantities with the whitebait. My rule of thumb also is one egg to 100 grams of whitebait, never more.

Here are three recipes that I think work really well.

Fluffy whitebait patties with jalapeno and coriander

Serves 4

200g whitebait
2 eggs
1 Tbsp chickpea flour
clove of garlic, crushed
1 Tbsp chopped coriander
4-5 sliced pickled jalapeno or fresh jalapeno
tsp salt

Combine one egg plus one yolk (reserve the white), garlic, jalapeno, coriander and salt.

Beat the egg white until soft peaks form. Add the whitebait and chickpea flour to the egg-yolk mixture, then fold through the egg white.

Heat a little butter in a pan and cook two tablespoon-sized patties with lots of whitebait in. Turn when golden. Keep patties warm while cooking the rest. Serve with a big chunk of lime or lemon.

Sauteed whitebait

Serves 4 as an entree

200-300g whitebait
4-5 Tbsp chickpea or regular flour
2 Tbsp butter and 2 Tbsp oil
Salt and pepper

Dry the whitebait on paper towels. Place the flour and salt and pepper on a flat plate and add the whitebait. Coat thoroughly.

Heat the butter and oil and, when hot, add the whitebait. Cook quickly, turning once or twice until each whitebait is golden. Serve mounded on a plate with a wedge of lemon.

Whitebait frittata

Serves 4

300-400g whitebait
3 eggs
1 shallot
2 Tbsp chopped chives
3 Tbsp chopped Italian parsley
Salt and pepper
1 clove of garlic
Grated parmigiano reggiano
1 Tbsp olive oil

In a bowl lightly beat the eggs and add the herbs and whitebait. Season well with salt and pepper. In a small frypan with high sides saute the shallot in oil, add the garlic. Pour in the egg and whitebait mixture and turn the heat down to very low. Grate at least 3 Tbsp of cheese over the top of the frittata. Cover the pan and cook gently until the eggs are cooked through. Serve thick slices with steamed asparagus.

- Nelson

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