Friday, 25 November 2011

Atherina (Aθερίνα)

Atherina is a Greek fish taverna favorite. It's a form of whitebait, very young fish. The most common Greek species of tiny fish takes its Greek (and scientific) name from the meaning "scorn" because it was looked down on for its size - but not its taste:
"Atherina, for the gourmets, is the ether of the sea and fish... it lives and bathes in the 'foam of the sea' like Aphrodite, and it has an ethereal appearance, beautiful, slender, with a translucent skin, and can be eaten raw! It doesn't have intestines, and doesn't smell 'fishy'. Those who have tasted it at its freshest say it tastes like shrimp, which can also be eaten raw." (Photos and translated text taken from Wikipedia)
The most common species of atherina (a kind of smelt) eaten in Greece is Atherina boyeri. It's nearly always fried, and tastes like fish chips. It is available most of the year at the fish markets in Hania (not during its spawning season), but it isn't always locally caught, and most of the atherina brought into the market is caught in breeding tanks through acquaculture, ie not fished "in the wild". These days, you can even buy (non-Mediterranean) atherina at the supermarket in the frozen products counter (at a much cheaper price than fresh atherina).

I recently saw some fresh atherina being brought in to the market, so I knew it was very fresh and local. At 8 euro a kilo, it isn't cheap, but I was not concerned with that dilemma at the time: the recipe I wanted to try out required fresh atherina. As I watched the atherina being poured into the crate in the fishmonger's display stand, whitebait fritters came to mind, a very Kiwi dish that I never had the chance to try while I was living there. My parents owned a fish and chip shop in Wellington, and I got my fill of Bluff oysters and paua fritters, but never had a chance to taste New Zealand whitebait, a kind of freshwater atherina. New Zealand whitebait was also subject to stricter fishing rules and regulations than oysters and paua; because of its limited use, it also needed to be eaten very fresh, hence it did not transport very well or quickly enough to urban centres.

 Atherina fried the Greek way

Greek atherina is cooked like potato chips. It needs a very light wash and the fish are so small that they do not need to be gutted or descaled. They are allowed to drain, then they are lightly floured and fried individually in very hot oil. Most cooks pick them up in threes from the tail and toss them into the hot oil together, so that they often come out stuck together.

 Whitebait fritters

Whitebait fritters are made by adding a little seasoned flour and egg (some people prefer only the egg white) to a cup of whitebait and cooking it fritter-style in a frying pan with a coating of butter (olive oil in my case). It's a very filling meal, best eaten with a plate of horta. And while we're at it, why not make some skordalia as a side dish?

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