Monday, May 9, 2011

Stalking the Wild Boar

In two earlier posts, here and here, I related how I tried and failed to harvest bamboo shoots in the wild. My thesis, that inoshishi (wild boars) had consumed all the available shoots, though probably invalid, made me think that if I couldn't get what I wanted in the woods, I should move one step up the food chain, and consume the consumer.

So I went in search of a place that served inoshishi — and found an oden shop near the old port town in Niihama which seemed, if the sign was any indication, to fit the bill.

Oden itself is considered primarily a winter food, and, partially because of its near ubiquity in convenience stores, coupled with the fact that it's boiled, had made me cultivate an active prejudice against the dish.

But one night in Osaka a few months ago, bumbling around an unfamiliar neighborhood in search of something to eat, we chanced to enter an oden shop, and surprise, surprise, liked it.

So after seeing this charming, weather-ravaged sign, I rounded up a couple of other curious and intrepid eaters on a drizzly Saturday night and plunged inside. (That's often how I travel — learn as little as possible about the place I'm going so that everything becomes pure discovery and adventure. A maddening proposition for some, I'm sure.)

We slid the nicely patinaed door open and ducked inside.

Subdued lighting, wood everything, lacquered turtles hanging on the walls; a giant pink battered phone in the entrance-way that had been used how many times to call taxis for drunken revelers; memorabilia; this and that darkly smoke-tinged thing plastered on the wall. Not so much cluttered as homey. A middleweight boxing match on the little TV.

The proprietors, a lovely old couple whom we learned had been running the place for forty-four years, sat us at the wooden bar just in front of the steaming oden pit.

The little lady stands over the pit with a small dish and takes your order, after which she goes back to a pot of spicy mustard, karashi, and puts a dollop alongside if you wish.

I had steamed fuki (butterbur); ginnan (gingko nuts) and an assortment of konnyakus and hanpens. Texturally, at least, oden is an acquired feel. Not least of which was the mochi wrapped in fried tofu skin — a wonderfully gooey explosion in the mouth.

After this warm-up washed down with draft beer, I asked for what we came for — the wild boar. They were not a little surprised that I even knew what the stuff was. They said they didn't have it anymore. I mistakenly thought anymore meant haven't had it for a long time, maybe years.

Oh well, we settled for tempura: anago (sea eel) kisu (a flat fish) and geso (deep fried squid tentacles).

Meanwhile, the door rattled open and a couple of locals quietly took up residence at the bar next to us.

We started watching what they ordered. A bowl of long thin greenish clams — razorbacks — came their way. We looked on enviously. They offered us a sampling. Sauteed in butter, they were delicious, and so we promptly ordered our own.

As the beers and drinks and food flowed, the place became livelier and we all started chatting and carrying on.

I don't know why this fact should have surprised me, but it did — these two guys made part of their livelihood by digging up bamboo shoots. I looked at their faces closely. Fantastic-sounding, I know, but they were the wild boar come down from the hills to taunt us, not only about our hunting failure, but too laugh at us for missing out on eating their brethren, the inoshishi, too.

Preposterous, I know, but there is a long tradition of in Japanese folklore of animals taking on the aspect of humans and vice-versa. Usually it's the tanuki (raccoon dog) or the fox, but why not the wild boar as well?

Anyway, my own paranoia and fantasy notwithstanding, we were too late for the inoshishi, just as we had been too early for the bamboo shoots.

The owner told us to come back next year in the winter during boar hunting season and he would be sure to have inoshishi.

I think we'll be back well before then.

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