Maurice Alexander | Fri, 31 Jan 2020
Whitebait are immature herring that were once a staple of our nation’s diet, the slender, shimmering fish being enjoyed as far back as the 1600s until the mid-1960s, when fish-stocks ran low. Now a delicacy, whitebait are best enjoyed fried in oil and served on a platter accompanied by wedges of sharp lemon, clouds of tangy mayonnaise and bushels of fried, curly parsley. The hallmarks of this dish are the speed of its preparation, the entertainment of your guests through their own involvement and the rich, comforting flavours that are so needed in the heart of Winter.
A flavourless oil
Generous amount of flour
500g whitebait for 2 / 1Kg Whitebait for 4
a large bunch of fresh, curly parsley
A large, double-handled, stainless-steel pot is required for this recipe. The volume of oil depends on the dimensions of the pot in your possession, but the oil surface should only reach a third to half its height. Flavourless oil is a second necessity, lacking an imparted flavour that would interfere with the flavours of the fish and possessing a higher smoking point than other oils to reduce the risk of fire. These are vegetable, sunflower and, if feeling decadent, groundnut oil. Its good to be on the safe side and purchase the largest jug of oil your local supermarket would carry. Typically, I get a 5-litre jug of sunflower oil, use around 3-litres frying the whitebait and use the remaining 2-litres for everyday cooking for the rest of the semester.
Whitebait are fish about the size of an index finger. They are available at both independent and supermarket fishmongers, but due to their present obscurity and delicacy status, they are not an everyday item. They are occasional produce and it is a delight seeing their paper trays stacked high on the chilled shelves like presents, packed tight with the silver bodies and glimmering eyes of the fish pressed against the clingfilm. If your local fishmonger never stocks them, he will be more than willing to order some for you if you were to ask. They are best fresh, but can be frozen, but I would avoid freezing them, as you miss out on the pleasure experienced when a culinary opportunity spontaneously presents itself.
The principal operation in the preparation of deep-frying food is acquiring and maintaining an oil temperature of 180 Celsius. This is the perfect temperature allowing the fish to crisp up beautifully. Any lower, the fish will absorb the oil and become greasy. Hotter temperatures will result in the burning of the fish and the grave possibility of a fire. I always take precautions in having a tea-towel soaked cold water for tossing over the pot if flames were ever to reach out from within its boiling grease. 180 Celsius can be identified through the watching a thermometer suspended in the oil reaching the 180 mark or by tossing in a tearing of bread, which should brown after a 60-second immersion. However, the way I personally tell is by adding a single fish to the pot and watching the oils reaction; a flurry of bubbles should surround the whitebait as though the oil has an appetite of its own. Frequently spitting indicates that the oil temperature is too high and a lack of or gentle initial bubbling means the oil temperature is too low.
What makes this dish so easy is that whitebait requires no rinsing, descaling or deboning; the tenderness of their bodies, tissue-paper-like flesh and soft bones, permit them to be eaten whole. On a chopping board, simply mix several tablespoons of plain flour with a few grindings of salt and back pepper and create a toss fish in this seasoned flour. You do not need an egg wash for them, as their will be a film of residual seawater coating their aquatic forms. Once thoroughly coated, lightly shake off the excess flour before adding to the hot oil for 4 minutes. The fish should be immediately engulfed in a storm of golden bubbles, with the storm dying down a minute or two into the process.
The quantity of whitebait and regularity of their addition to the oil depends on how many people you are cooking for. For 3+ people, add no-more than a handful as a time as the fish will be chilled from the fridge which will cause the oil to drop considerably below the 180 Celsius mark. Remove the fish from the pot with the use of a slotted ladle and lay a bed of kitchen paper to remove residual frying oil. Demonstrate this a for the first two or three times before offering the role to one of your guests, as everyone will be keen to play chef. Whilst the next handful is frying, fill three or more ramekins with mayonnaise of the highest quality for use as a dip and slice the 2 or 3 lemons into wedges for raining down their juice. The citrus flavour of the lemon will cut the heaviness of the dish and the mayonnaise adds a comforting richness, both complementing the whitebaits’ crisp texture. Place the fried fish upon a separate, larger plate for everyone to eat from in wait for the next batch of golden fish. When preparing dinner for two, the fish should be added all at once, fried, tossed in kitchen paper and laid upon a large serving plate that has been warmed in the oven. Deep-fried, the whitebait retain their elegant shape, as though petrified mid-current in the ocean.
Once all the fish has been fried, remove the pot from the heat. Tear handfuls of the fresh, curly parsley and add it all to the hot oil. Resist the urge to use flat-leaf parsley as it becomes an inedible slime in the frying process. Ensure that everyone is standing well away from the pot at this stage, as the water content of the curly parsley causes the oil to spit furiously. The spitting should last only a few seconds and the bubbling of the oil after about 30 seconds, at which point you remove the parsley and arrange it around the fish on the serving plate. The curly parsley will have reduced in size but be crisp and light.
Whitebait infuse the flavours of the sea into the oil, so you cannot use it for anything else. This is why I recommend buying double the quantity of whitebait and parsley you need, cooking them one day and having them again the next. After a second frying, the oil would have collected a considerable amount of charred sediment and will have become a deep, walnut brown, therefore ready for disposal. Unlike fat, oil will never solidify, so wait until the oil has cooled to room temperature and funnel it into a large milk jug with the use of a funnel.
Locally sourced from the North Sea, Whitebait are the most delicious fish there is and, once tried, they will become a staple in your culinary repertoire.