Nasty little teeth, where are you?
My query only lasted a moment as I greedily started eating a rare coastal treat--ooligans.
Far in the distant past, during teaching school, I had the opportunity to string these plump, greasy little fish on long strips of cedar bark. The weather was grey and bitter cold, my fingers were numb from the cold wind. Perhaps that was a blessing because I recall, as I poked thin little withies through their fearsome little jaws, that their teeth 'bit' me constantly. After a day of hard work, stringing lots of the little buggers for wind-drying, weaving poles through gills for the smokehouse and cutting sealion into strips for smoking, we all sat down to a good feast of bbq'd ooligans and fried bread. I remember from the first moment they touched my lips how their slick, toothy rawness didn't give any suggestion to its future as a unctuous, meaty fish that could be eaten whole--bones, teeth and all--with nary a tastebud offended by the thought of brains, eyes or innards.
Fast forward to a couple weeks ago. I rarely see ooligans. They are a prized possession amongst the coastal peoples native to the west of British Columbia. Often these little smelts are rendered slowly into a fermented oil condiment, "grease" as it is known around here. Both grease and ooligans whole were once enjoyed in quantity in the past. The runs of fish get smaller and smaller each year, the cost of the grease goes up and up. So, when I tell you that a notice up at the local grocery shop offering ooligans for sale was like someone announcing that they were selling gold nuggets from their back door, you'll perhaps understand my own excitement and shock. I tracked down the house, payed a pretty penny for them (and rightly so since it's a delicacy these days) and nearly caused turmoil in the office when I share my tale of luck.
Because they are so flavourful and oily, they need little seasoning. I was told by an elder, whom I asked for cooking options, to just treat it simply--coat them in seasoned flour and fry, I was told. He suggested rice with dried seaweed as a side dish. Luckily I still had a bag of dried local kelp from a friend around. It was a good side to fried fish as its relatively plain taste carried and aided the richness of the fish meat. A bit of lemon to help along the oiliness and all was set.
With the very first bite, I was back, sitting on that stump by the backyard fire, munching on ooligans wrapped in fried bread. It was a good day and it's funny how a simple taste can bring it all rushing back. I was getting stressed with several busy days and boisterous children so it was good to recall a day when a job was completed and I was righteously tired, content with the world and its bounty. And, I thought, philosophically, as I ate myself nearly sick on them, even if life throws sharp little teeth your way, you can always cook them up and render them benign and maybe even quite tasty.
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