A handful of whitebait.
The last time I spent any length of time in Auckland was August 15, 2007, a day that just happened to coincide with the opening of the whitebait season in New Zealand. Opening day for whitebait is a pretty damn big deal for Kiwis. It’s like the third Thursday in November in Paris, when Beaujolais nouveau is released, and the Fiera Internazionale del Tartufo Blanco d’Alba in Umbria, celebrating the beginning of the white truffle season, and the Kentucky Derby, all rolled into one.
Whitebait, if you don’t know, are tiny little fish, the juvenile of common galaxias or inanga, which lay their eggs on the banks amongst grasses in certain rivers in New Zealand, the most famous being Mokau River here on the North Island.
During whitebait season, crazy people take their nets and go stake out a spot on the river to try and snag as many of the little critters as they can. When you get too many people on the river (common) and throw in a few beers (even more common), it’s not unusual for people to get a little territorial and for fights to break out. Which only makes fishing for the sweet, tender little buggers all the more fun as far as the Kiwis are concerned.
When in season, you’ll see signs in the windows of just about every restaurant in Auckland and elsewhere advertising that they serve a whitebait dish, usually some sort of a fritter. But the real whitebait nutjobs have their own secret recipes. To get a sense of just how fanatical Kiwis can be about whitebait, here’s a story told by Martin Bosley about the opening of last year’s whitebait season and his 71-year-old mother-in-law (mind you, spring here is in the fall):
“It was the worst storm that spring and the river was in full flood. The whitebait were running and on one particularly large surge of the river my mother-in-law lost her net and in despair watched it tumble end over end, spilling its precious contents back into the river as it was washed out to sea. The only reason she wasn’t washed away with the net was because she had tied herself to a pine tree on the riverbank. Such is the stoicism of the true whitebaiter.
“Anyway, she leapt into her car and raced home to get a replacement net. In her haste she decided not to remove her waders, with disastrous consequences. As she pulled in to her driveway she mistook the brake for the accelerator and hurtled through a fence, across the patio, demolishing her hardwood outdoor dining table and chairs, and into the house.
“Along the way, the buckets of whitebait that she had so lovingly placed in the trunk spilled everywhere. I remain unsure what she was more upset about—the extensive damage to her home and vehicle or the loss of her precious whitebait.
“Undaunted, she was back on the river in late-August and I will not see her again until the end of November. The only knowledge I will have of her existence will be to find deposits of deliciously fresh translucent whitebait placed in my refrigerator, usually accompanied by a note proclaiming the amount of that day’s catch. With commercial prices reaching $100 per kg, I am deeply appreciative of this.
“Whitebait is one of the few freshwater fish we eat in New Zealand, and the fishing of it is symbolic of our culture. Anyone can do it. I cannot fish to save myself, but can easily catch whitebait; little skill is involved, just patience. While I personally believe that the best-tasting whitebait come from the Cascades River on the West Coast of the South Island, I have had vociferous arguments with those who believe the best comes from the North Island’s Mokau River.
A whitebait fritter, the preferred method of preparation for the little critters.
“I have had similar discussions on how to make the best fritter. I use one whole egg for approximately 100 grams of whitebait. First dust the whitebait with the lightest sprinkling of flour so that each fish is individually coated, and then lightly season with salt—do not use any pepper as it is too harsh for the delicate flavor. Beat the egg in a separate bowl and pour enough onto the floured whitebait to just bind it. Some say that the eggs should be separated, and the whites whipped to stiff peaks before folding them back into the yolks; the choice is yours. Melt a little butter in a frying pan and pour in the mix, cooking each side for about three minutes.
“Squeeze a little lemon juice over the fritter and serve it—preferably between slices of buttered toast. Couldn’t be easier really.”