All around the world different sorts of whole, tiny little fish are eaten, head, bones, guts and all and each are termed whitebait.
In the US, whitebait usually refers to silversides or sand eel fry. But in Europe the term applies to young herrings and sprats, while in Japan they are referring to young sea perch. The common galaxias is the usual whitebait in New Zealand which resembles small elvers, looking like slimy translucent worms.
The first record of whitebait appearing on menus dates back to England in 1612 where they were fished out of the river Thames in London. By the 1780’s they had become a fashionable restaurant ingredient. In those days it was believed that whitebait were a particular type of fish and a French naturalist named Valenciennes even termed them rogenia.
Each individual fish is typically only around 1-2 inches long and usually they are simply dipped into various seasoned flours and deep fried for around 3 minutes then served accompanied by lemon wedges. In New Zealand the whitebait fritter is the most popular cooking method for these sweet and tender delicately flavored fish fry. A batter is made from milk, eggs and flour and the whitebait are added before shallow frying a large spoonful of batter. Purists only use egg white which is essentially an egg white whitebait omelet.
In Italian they are called bianchetti and along with the usual frying methods, they are also made into a soup. Liguria in the North West makes a delicious soup using fish stock, zucchini, whitebait and angel hair pasta. The island of Sicily has a dish named frittell di bianchetti, whisked egg whites, breadcrumbs, pecorina cheese and copious amounts of herbs are mixed together with the whitebait before shallow frying in little patties.
The Chinese have fish farms producing whitebait for export in large quantities. In Japan they are known as shirauo and shirasu depending on where they are caught and are often cooked in a tempura batter. They also produce chirimenjako which are crispy whitebait cooked in a sweet and soy glaze. Whitebait are full of healthy Omega 3 oils and being calcium rich they are very good for the bones even if that does mean eating their bones.
Photos courtesy of flickr - avlxyz, Juli*ette, vintage kat and Julian Morris