Whitebait is the immature species of several small schooling fish caught almost exclusively with a cast net. The demand for these little baitfish has never been high in Australia, unlike in New Zealand, where they are a popular menu item.
Depending on the region, whitebait encompasses many species and, although they are most commonly used as bait in Victoria, the quality of these little fish is considerable. Catches can fetch up to $150 a kilogram.
Victoria’s Port Phillip has been home to a very small commercial fishery that has now been restricted to one fisher as part of the state government’s Target One Million plan, which was introduced in 2014 with the aim of increasing recreational anglers to one million by 2020. The fish used in this recipe are from that last permitted fisher, Phil McAdam from Vancouver Fisheries in Williamstown. They are a mature sprat, so there is a little more structure than the more commercially available imports. It really is a treat to be able to experience eating these little fish in their entirety. The crunch and brine flavour are quite extraordinary.
After 2022 I won’t be able to buy my whitebait from a well-managed local fishery as there will no longer be any commercial netting operations in Port Phillip due to a Victorian government ban. Most overseas whitebait fisheries are not well regulated and are ecological nightmares that I can’t possibly endorse. So I will enjoy this dish while I can, knowing that in a couple of years’ time it’ll be off my menu.
Serves 2 as a light lunch
– 2 egg whites
– 50g potato starch
– 80g plain flour
– 15ml vodka
– 50ml soda water
– 50g toasted laver seaweed
– 500ml grapeseed oil (for frying)
– 200g whitebait
– 40g tamarind paste (200g of tamarind seeds required; see method below)
– 20g palm sugar
– 20ml lime juice
– 50ml fish sauce
– 1 white onion
– 20 leaves Vietnamese mint
– 1 ripe tomato
Lightly whisk the egg whites until they just begin to foam. Add the potato starch, flour, vodka and soda water, then mix gently to fully incorporate all the ingredients into a batter without agitating it too much. Finely shred the laver seaweed and add half into the batter.
Pour the grapeseed oil into a wok and preheat to 190ºC. Give the whitebait a brief and gentle rinse in very chilled (preferably iced) water. This is one of the only fish I wash prior to use, because we are eating every bit of it. Pick up the fish in small bundles – about 40 grams each – and then drop them into the batter. Form the fish into a loose cake using a fork and then lift the fish into the wok to fry on high heat for four minutes. Keep rolling the fish around using the fork to ensure even cooking, then lift the “cake” out and place it onto absorbent towel.
To make the tamarind paste, soak 200 grams of seeds in half a litre of hot water. Stir and let sit for five minutes before passing the paste through a fine sieve. Put 40 grams of the paste in a mixing bowl, then add the sugar, lime juice and fish sauce and mix until the sugar dissolves. Slice the white onion into fine rounds and place into iced water. Cut the Vietnamese mint into fine threads.
Serve the whitebait on a plate. Slice the tomato, place it next to the whitebait and then liberally top with the tamarind dressing. Scatter the rest of the laver and the Vietnamese mint onto the tomato and finish with the onion slices.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Feb 22, 2020 as "Taking the bait".
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