References to whitebait were everywhere. It was clear it was some sort of fish, but exactly what it was, I had no idea. Curious, I looked it up and discovered that it’s one of the most sought-after delicacies on NZ’s West Coast. People flock to their favorite rivers and estuaries to catch these babies and then fry them up as fritters, heads and all. Because of their delicate flavor, it is best to prepare them simply and without the use of strongly flavored ingredients. The AA Visitor Guide (West Coast) suggests this recipe:
Lightly cover whitebait in flour. Add a pinch of salt. Beat egg in a separate bowl and pour just enough on the whitebait to bind. Heat butter in frying pan until hot and fry the mixture in batches for about 3 minutes each side. Add lemon juice before serving.
Whitebait are the immature stage of a kind of smelt, called inanga. When gathered, they resemble a mass of translucent worms, which you might imagine horrifies many, particularly non-Kiwis. Their appearance is not unlike a Japanese delicacy called iriko, except bigger. It used to be so bountiful, so the story goes, that people used it as garden fertilizer during the Great Depression. Now, they’re not so plentiful and are therefore incredibly expensive. If we’re in NZ during the season (September 1 through mid-November), we’ll have to rush out and try some.