January 9, 2012

Whitebait pattie stop on the West Coast

Once back on the road after welcoming the new year in the Fiordlands, we headed towards NZ's West Coast through Haast, the gateway village into NZ's Glacier Country. I had been reading that Haast was famous for whitebait fishing, a practice attracting a number of amateur fishermen eager to earn a few extra dollars since the yearly catches started to shrink and the fish to consequently gain in value a few years ago, and that the most common way to indulge the precious fish was in a "whitebait pattie".

I had little idea what sort of fish whitebait was, and hence imagined the celebrated pattie resembling some sort of fish cake prepared with shredded flesh - which I thought was quite a shame for such a pricey fish… Driving past Otoko Espresso, a tiny hut on wheels at Haast's main junction proudly proclaiming its "Best Value Whitebait Patties" on impossible-to-miss large yellow boards, I did not hesitate for long before deciding to check out what the popular delicacy was all about, and "mourir un peu moins bete" as we like to say in French (literally "die a little less stupid").

Otoko's owner Robyn explained to me that the only ingredients coming into her patties were whitebait of course, beaten eggs, a little flour, salt and pepper - and that she was serving the fritter with a lemon wedge over a slice of bread spread with butter, as is tradition. Although I had heard that whitebait is a small fish, it is only when I asked Robyn if I could take a quick look to the raw mixture that I understood how small a fish whitebait is indeed.. So little actually that there is no way to consume it but whole! I quickly figured that whitebait must have been if not one of them, at least very similar to those tiny little fish that we like to have very lightly battered or as "petite friture" along the banks of the Saone river in France.

Although I enjoyed my whitebait pattie, I would qualify this first time as an amusing experience rather than a revelation for my taste buds - as it didn't taste that different from a fish omelette in the end. What was quite interesting on the other hand, was to bite into a significant number of visible little heads and minuscule eyes, some of them audaciously coming out of the main shape on the edges.. While I am a decidedly slow eater in normal circumstances, I have to admit I did not quite take my time as much as I usually do on that day, as I feared that too much thinking may eventually prevent me from finishing my snack off!

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