The story of whitebait

On my way back from Fiji, my daughter was most amused when she saw me have a roti sandwich with fried whitebait in Sydney and asked why would I have that for dinner when there was an amazing buffet of delicacies laid out for us in the Business Class lounge.

I quickly launched into the story of whitebait or digana as it’s referred to in Fiji. Digana, or inanga (common galaxies) is a delicacy amongst food enthusiasts around the world and in Fijian families like mine, it is frozen for consumption when in season for visitors like myself who will never experience the amazing taste in any other part of the world.
The most common whitebait species is found in New Zealand and Fiji waters. They are caught using small open-mouthed hand-held nets similar to ones we used for catching baby prawns in our childhood as a weekend activity.

Whitebaiting in the Pacific is a seasonal activity with a fixed and limited period when they can be caught. Foodies in other parts of the world often find whitebait very different and superior in the Pacific than in other parts of the world. In human terms it’s the difference you would find between Europeans and East Europeans or how people find North Americans far superior than the South Americans who are often seen as low class. They are all humans but many people unfortunately view them differently in terms of superiority. Its the difference of a quality German product and a cheap replica done in some dodgy factory in China. In the same way foodies view the whitebait in the Pacific as far superior in taste and texture than what is found in other parts of the world.

As a delicacy, whitebait commands high prices to the extent that it is the most costly fish on the market, if available. It is normally sold fresh in small quantities, although some is frozen to extend the sale period. I’m just grateful my sister always keeps them in supply for my visits to Fiji.

I met a Kiwi who told me that whitebaiting in NZ was a sport because it takes a lot of patience, luck and the reward of a good catch. In places like Mokau District, there are even a few varieties of whitebait. I remember a menu in Portugal not long ago that had whitebait. I looked at the picture and immediately asked the waiter in Lisbon if it was really whitebait. He showed me a sample and it was a far cry from being delicate. I would even go as far as saying it was an insult to call it whitebait.

If you are a foodie and have a soft spot for high-end seafood that tickles your palate, I suggest trying this delicacy when you are next in the Pacific and lucky enough to be there during the whitebaiting season.

3 thoughts on “The story of whitebait

  1. Bula Shereen
    I am delighted to stumble on to this article of yours about ‘Digana’. I believe you are from the Sigatoka area. I am and come from there too, but now live in London.

    I miss this delicacy. Sigatoka is the only place I know where it rises seasonally. We lived by the Sigatoka river, and had a pretty idea when it would rise, so off to the river with our buckets and nets to catch these little things.

    Do you know ‘Navuchu’ (in Nadroga dialect), a smaller version of the digana which also would rise at least once a year. They look pink in colour and would follow up river from the Mohana. One would be standing in the water with cloth nets for hours to get a good catch.

    Some Filipino shops in London do sell frozen ‘navuchu’ which they call ‘dobo’ I think.

    Would love to hear from you

    1. Hi Vimla,

      Its superb to hear from you. Do you go back to Fiji often? Would love to meet you there for a digana session. I am based in Dubai. If you do come this way, give me a buzz. Take care. Shereen

      1. Hi Shereen
        Thanks for your reply. I try to go at least once a year to visit family/relatives and old friends.
        What exactly are you doing in Dubai? I have been through it once, on our way to India.
        Which family in Sigatoka are you from? My mum comes from the Sigatoka Raju clan, some of whom you might know of.
        If ever you get the chance to pass through London, would love to meet you.

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