Thursday, September 02, 2010

Something fishy

Great excitement in the kitchen today, for the KitchenMaid has received a VIP invitation to the opening of a new fish restaurant. It didn't come on gilt-edged card, but it is exciting all the same. In my old life I went to the openings of envelopes, but my new life is rather less glamorous. Still, it will be nice to take off my apron, leave the house without a small companion, drink pretend champagne and make chit-chat.

Anyway, back to fish. Despite being a small island nation it's ridiculously expensive to buy fish in New Zealand and even the tinned stuff is pretty cheap and nasty. But the Boy Wonder hails from the wild West Coast and whenever his parents come to visit they bring newspaper-wrapped packages of whitebait; tiny translucent fish frozen in perfect rectangular packages.


Orowaiti Estuary, Westport, New Zealand
On the coast, whitebaiting is serious business. Prime spots along the rivers are guarded fiercely and woe betide an out-of-towner who stakes their claim on a local's patch. For while Coasters are passionate about whitebait's delicate flavour, it's also a lucrative source of blackmarket income. Buying whitebait on the sly is not unlike making a drug deal - cash only, thanks, and don't tell anyone who you got it from. It's probably not the most ethically sound or sustainable way to eat fish, but you won't make many friends by suggesting that.

Buller River, Westport, New Zealand
The traditional way to eat it is in fritters, or patties, as they call them on the Coast. The Boy Wonder's mother makes them to a recipe that her mother made - 3 eggs to a pound of whitebait (Coasters only talk of pounds of whitebait, as if it's immune to metric measurements), enough flour to thicken the mixture (about 1/2 cup) and a pinch of baking powder. She fries them in LOTS of butter, then serves them up with oven-cooked chips and buttered white bread. Salt, tomato sauce, and lemon halves are the only accompaniments. Whitebait cooked this way is delicious, but not the sort of thing you want to eat too often.

On our travels we ate lots of tiny fish that had been dipped in flour and flash fried in olive oil. The Boy Wonder has started giving our precious packages of whitebait this treatment and we've decided we much prefer it to the eggy stodge of fritters. If you manage to get some this season, here's what to do with it.

Tiny fish, olive oil, what's not to like?

Spanish Whitebait
This feeds two very hungry people as a main course but would make a lovely starter or canape treat for more.

1 lb (about 560g) whitebait
flour
salt and pepper
olive oil

Defrost the whitebait and rinse under the tap to get rid of any grit. Drain well.
Heat a thin pool of oil in a heavy pan until hot. Take a handful of whitebait at a time and shake in a coarse sieve with a handful of seasoned flour until lightly coated. Fry in the hot oil until opaque, then remove to a plate lined with kitchen paper and keep warm in a low oven. Serve with crisp salad greens and hunks of good bread. Lemon halves are a must; tomato sauce is optional. Pin It

3 comments:

  1. I enjoyed this post so much and I love the photos - I know both the Buller river and the Orowaiti Estuary well as we (my husband and I) have a bush block near the Mokihinui River so understand what you are saying about the West Coasters and 'their' whitebait; I love it. Your recipe for the crisp whitebait sounds so good!

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  2. Yummy..whitebait fritters. Mo and I had a yearly ritual.. a visit to Mokau for whitebait. Steve's first engineering post was site manager during the building of the new Mokau bridge. Knowing how his dad liked whitebait he went into the butcher shop and bought one kilo of whitebait for father's day! His poor credit card must have done a flip..like Steve when he saw how much that cost!

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  3. Thank you ladies for your kind words. We definitely wouldn't be eating whitebait in such quantities if we were paying for it, blackmarket or not!

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Hello - thanks for stopping by. If this was real life I'd make you a cup of tea and open the biscuit tin, but in lieu of those things, let's have a chat anyway...

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