In Britain, Whitebait will be used to refer to very young herring, sprats, gobies, pipefish and weavers.
In Ireland, the term refers to very young herring, or sometimes sand eels, about 2 1/2 inches (6 cm) long. These have far more of a fishy flavour.
In New Zealand, Whitebait can be any of five closely related speices: inanga, koaro, banded kokopu, shortjaw kokopu and giant kokopu. The most common is inanga. In New Zealand, Whitebait is often made into fritters, with many fish per fritter, with their eyes staring up at you peeking out of the batter.
Whitebait is expensive in New Zealand, $10 to $15 NZD per 100g, 2004 prices.
Whitebait anywhere is not as prolific as it used to be, because catching and eating the fish so young means they aren’t around to breed later.
Mock Whitebait Fritters are made with cheddar cheese.
Whitebait detractors say that Whitebait doesn’t actually have any flavour, and that even eggs will overwhelm their taste. Consequently, they are usually rolled in flour and fried.
For hundreds of years, Whitebait was caught by net out of the Thames at Greenwich in London. A Whitebait festival was held there every spring, which coincided with the Parliamentary recess. The Whitebait Festival dinners there were halted in 1894, because they had come to be seen as indecent excess and feasting.
Whitebait are now caught instead at Southend, and a Whitebait Festival is held there every year.
The name Whitebait comes about because they were often used as bait.