Buy me a fish and I’ll stay for a day, catch me a fish and I’ll stay forever.
Those immortal lines were delivered to Dawid on Friday after he caught me a net-full of beautiful silvery harders. Too big to be juveniles but too small for bokkoms, these tiddlers are usually thrown aside for the harbour cats. Every time we watched the fishermen with their throw nets, I would cry internally as I saw these delicate fishes end up as cat food – not that I don’t love cats, but here we have our very own local version of whitebait. Dreaming of Grecian spreads, a summer table laden with Taramasalata, garlicky pita, icy white wine and platefuls of these little fish – floured and fried to a golden crisp. The stuff of dreams!
These tasty little snacks have their origins everywhere from Australia to Japan but I love the Italian and Greek versions best. Known as gianchetti, cicenielli or ceruses depending on the area one is in, Italian whitebait are prepared simply – either made into fritters, croquettes or floured and deep-fried whole. The latter is the version I’m best acquainted with.
Juvenile members of the anchovy, sardine or herring family, whitebait are traditionally prepared by dusting in seasoned flour before being deep-fried. If you don’t have access to fresh fish, then most fishmongers and Portuguese grocers sell pre-packaged frozen whitebait.
Essentially a happy medium between fish and chips, whitebait have to be one of my favourite snacks to enjoy with a glass of wine. And just like chips, whitebait almost always require something to dip into. A speedy mayo flavoured with fresh dill and tangy capers is the easiest accompaniment for these crispy little fish.
Cut to Friday night and a speedy preparation of Dawid’s catch. A quick clean to remove the entrails, a roll in seasoned flour and batch-fry in hot oil. Out of the pan and on to the plate in 3-4 minutes. Seasoned with flaky salt and paired with a small bowl of the aforementioned mayonnaise, this made up my dinner.
West Coast Whitebait
Prep time: 15 mins /Cook time: 10 mins /Serves: 4
You will need:
- 900g pre-frozen whitebait, defrosted
- 100g plain flour
- Fine salt and pepper
- Sunflower oil, for deep-frying
- 50ml good quality mayonnaise (or make your own)
- 1 lemon
- 1 tablespoon of fresh dill, finely chopped
- 1 tablespoon of capers, roughly chopped
- Sea salt flakes
Stir the chopped dill and capers through the mayonnaise and add a squeeze of lemon juice. Refrigerate until needed.
Fill a pot with about 4cm of oil and heat to 200°C. If using fresh fish, speedily gut with a pair of kitchen scissors and a spoon. This is an optional step for larger fish – you can also just eat them whole. Rinse off the whitebait and pat dry with kitchen towel. Combine the flour with a shake of fine black pepper and salt and drop in the whitebait. Shake the dish to evenly coat each fish in flour then deep-fry the whitebait in batches, draining the fried fish on kitchen towel. Season with salt and serve the whitebait immediately with the dill mayonnaise and extra lemon wedges for squeezing over.
Wine suggestion – Fryer’s Cove Sauvignon Blanc.