Whitebait: The New Zealand delicacy available in Queenstown
Queenstown is the best place to try White Bait
1 September to 30 October 2023 inclusive nationwide.
Each year in early September, the country goes into a tailspin over some very tiny local river fish. Whitebait is a New Zealand delicacy, our very own caviar or truffle. And with an eye-watering price per kilo, it’s no wonder that New Zealand's whitebait season generates such fervour. If you're in Queenstown during whitebait season, don't miss your chance to try it.
Whitebait are a small fish with a big following. Similar to a European herring but much smaller, whitebait are the fry (young) of native New Zealand fish and are found in freshwater waterways including coastal creeks, streams, rivers and lakes. Whitebait season typically runs from early September to late October, with the short season aiming to protect these juvenile fish stocks from being overfished.
The West Coast of the South Island is the heart of the Whitebait scene, and the best fishing spots are a closely guarded secret by locals. Patient fishermen and amateurs alike cast their nets in the hope of pulling up a bounty of fish that are no bigger than an earthworm.
The costs, both wholesale and commercial reflect the short farming season and the rarity of the catch. In 2023, we are already seeing whole rates per kilo set at NZD $60 to $75 per kilo, while local supermarkets around Queenstown are selling the little critters for $139.90 per kilo!!!
A GOLDEN CATCH
Like any national treasure, the whitebait has its own festival. The Westport Whitebait Festival runs over Labour Weekend and has been held annually since 2015 each in the West Coast township of Westport. It's a weekend of all things fun and celebrates not only the cuisine of Whitebait but also promotes the tourism of Westport.
The tasty little fish are eaten whole and require no prep work. The flavour of whitebait is so good that a serving of whitebait seldom comes with much embellishment. The most common way to do whitebait is the humble whitebait fritter. Even the finest of establishments will serve a fritter - a mix of egg and whitebait pan-fried. All good Kiwis enjoy their fritter served between two slices of white bread and a lashing of butter. If you want to go upmarket, you could add a dash of salt and a squeeze of lemon. You can always measure the quality of a whitebait fritter by the ratio of egg to whitebait. Too much egg and not enough fish is an indication that you have fallen on hard times.
If you're looking for Whitebait in Queenstown, you will find plenty of options during the season. While seafood restaurants are the obvious choice, you'll also find Whitebait on the menu at any good establishment. While Whitebait can be frozen and eaten throughout the year, most restaurateurs prefer to serve up the fresh catch.
Whitebait is a New Zealand institution. If you see it on the menu at a Queenstown restaurant, you've got to try it!