Jeremy Taylor is a kiwi foodwriter with a difference. Is this fab article, he goes all white faced over whitebait! Ooh, the cheek.
Honest to God, if I hear the story about how the much maligned Stephen Donald was yanked from the banks of the Waikato River, where he was whitebaiting, to take his place in the All Blacks squad as Colin Slade’s replacement, and, ultimately kick the Cup-winning penalty, I think I will scream.
It’s a classic “rags to riches”, “fickle wheel of fortune” sort of tale, and I think the “whitebaiting” part of the equation only serves to emphasise the very “New Zealand-ness” of it all, how we see ourselves as a nation of “little battlers”. It makes us feel good, because it is analogous to our struggle; to be noticed, to be heard above the rabble. What is curious, really, is how the act itself of whitebaiting is an earthy, grass roots sort of pursuit, whereas the act of eating whitebait has become a distinctly highbrow one.
For starters – it is gobsmackingly expensive. One hundred grams just cost me $15 – I usually eat it only about once a year as a consequence. The second thing I am now wondering is – is it actually ridiculously overrated, even compared to other expensive fish and seafood?
Take oysters, for instance. Once a year, I get myself a punnet of a dozen fresh Bluff oysters and go nuts. I have them with a variety of seasonings – lime and black pepper, Huffman’s hot sauce, a little aged balsamic vinegar – sometimes I even crumb and fry a few. They are expensive, sure, but they are also utterly luxurious, and they never disappoint.
So, I am writing this, having purchased said whitebait delicacy, but before cooking them. Nerves? Am I… choking?!
With expensive kit like this, there is no room for error. I consult the oracle – Al Brown‘s Go Fish. It is an excellent book – the recipes are straightforward, and totally geared toward showing off the quality of the seafood, rather than suggesting fancy techniques and complicated, long-winded methods. He moots, as I had hoped, a very simple recipe for whitebait fritters: drain the whitebait, and add a tablespoon of flour, one egg, plus one yolk. Easy.
I have also roasted some delicious, fresh seasonal asparagus, and boiled some tiny Agria potatoes. This should be good – shouldn’t it?
First, I make a salad, a little appetiser, or palate-cleanser, if you will – mandolin-slices of apple, radish and cucumber, in a light limey dressing, with some crumbled feta and torn mint leaves. It looks pretty; it tastes – like summer on a plate. I am stalling – I am concerned that I will be underwhelmed by my expensive whitebait.
I finish boiling the tiny taters, drain them, add olive oil, chopped mint and salt and pepper and give them a quick blast over the heat. The asparagus is perfectly roasted – still holding together, but with a pleasing daub of colour. I fry the whitebait fritters in vegetable oil in a pan on a medium heat, three little fritters each, until they are lightly coloured and look and feel cooked.
I warm the plates, lay the potatoes on the base, gently lift the fritters on top, drape the roasted asparagus over the top, add a grind of black pepper, a little more chopped mint, a splash of olive oil and a couple of wedges of lime.
The moment of truth. The seasonal veges taste fresh and, well, of themselves. And the whitebait fritters are light and crispy, with the batter having well and truly insulated the delicate little fish against the heat of the pan. The squeeze of lime juice really complements the whitebait’s subtly fishy flavour.
Is it overrated? No, thankfully, I don’t think so. A little has just gone a fair way, and it has had the desired effect of seeming luxurious. I think that the key to such top-drawer ingredients is to eat them rarely, to use them efficiently, and to serve them with other seasonal ingredients that reinforce their “special-ness”, and celebrate the narrow window of time that whitebait is available for.
Do you like whitebait? How do you prepare it? Do you think it is overrated? What’s the best you’ve ever had?
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