I was lucky enough to grow up living within a half hours drive from the beach, in fact when our new house was being built in the city we lived in our beach house until it was completed.
My Dad and his friends, spent many hours at the river mouths with their whitebait nets waiting to bring home enough whitebait to make fritters.
New Zealand whitebait are the juvenile of certain galaxiids which mature and live as adults in rivers with native forest surrounds. The larvae of these galaxiids is swept down to the ocean where they hatch and the sprats then move back up their home rivers as whitebait.
Whitebaiting in New Zealand is a seasonal activity with a fixed and limited period enforced during the period that the whitebait normally migrate up-river. The strict control over net sizes and rules against blocking the river to channel the fish into the net permit sufficient quantity of whitebait to reach the adult habitat and maintain stock levels. The whitebait themselves are very sensitive to objects in the river and are adept at dodging the nets.
New Zealand whitebait are caught in the lower reaches of the rivers using small open-mouthed hand-held nets although in some parts of the country where the whitebait is more plentiful, larger (but not very large) set nets may be used adjacent to river banks. Dad's net, if you looked at it from the side, was almost triangular in shape.
Whitebaiters constantly attend the nets in order to lift them as soon as a shoal enters the net. Otherwise the whitebait quickly swim back out of the net. Typically, the small nets have a long pole attached so that the whitebaiter can stand on the river bank and scoop the net forward and out of the water when whitebait are seen to enter it. The larger nets may be set into a platform extending into the river from the bank and various forms of apparatus used to lift the net.
The New Zealand whitebait is small, sweet and tender with a delicate taste that is easily over-powered if mixed with stronger ingredients when cooked. The most popular way of cooking whitebait in New Zealand is the whitebait fritter, which is essentially an omelette containing whitebait. Purists use only the egg white in order to minimise interfering with the taste of the bait. The whitebait are cooked whole, not with the heads cut off, as my Mother would have liked. She did not like those eyes looking at her, and never did eat the fritters.
This recipe uses frozen whitebait, fresh whitebait, as always, is best.
Preparation time: 5 minutes
Total time: 10 minutes
250g (8oz.) Whitebait
Defrost whitebait naturally. Once defrosted place in bowl and add two eggs (without the shell). Using a fork, whip whitebait & egg mixture vigorously for approx. 15 seconds or until slightly frothy.
Add butter to pan, ensuring pan is nice & hot, and add small amounts of mixture to pan.
Cook for 45 seconds to 1 minute each side, or a little longer if you like them browned.