Friday, October 21, 2005
Oodles of Ooligans
Once I was innocent of ooligan knowledge. I don't think I'd even heard of ooligans, let alone ooligan grease, until I went to Bella Coola where I worked for two months in 1996. Also known as the candlefish, the ooligan is a little oily fish with sharp teeth and a strong taste. Apparently it is so greasy that a whole dried fish can be lit like a candle! Not that I met it in either form in '96.
In Bella Coola I had encountered a jar of the grease, rendered by special technique from these silvery fish, in the local museum. The smell, I thought, would have knocked me flat if I'd not heard other people exclaim in shock beforehand. It was pungent to say the least with a strong aroma of fish and something else I can't quite recall. Maybe something in scent I think I could find akin to the strongest, oldest French cheese I'd encountered years later. It wasn't until four years later that I was to understand that this grease was the headiest of the varieties to be found on the coast. I had, until then, believed it must be one of those cultural acquired tastes that one just can't understand unless you grew up with it.
My experience further north in the Nass Valley changed my opinion 180 degrees. I not only tasted it for the first time but also visited a place where it was rendered. The taste was very fishy but not powerfully so. It actually really did enhance the dried seaweed and the wind-dried fish I'd dipped in it. The rendering involves fermenting the fish, boiling and skimming--a long, scented occasion which occurs around Spring Break (March). It was during that time that other encounters with the ooligan led me to understand its huge impact on the lives of some coastal peoples. And how good it was. I was understanding how it was that it had been used on everything from rice, to toast, to berries instead of creams or butters.
Back in 2000, I and some others, who had travelled to the said Nass valley for two weeks for a teacher's experience, had the opportunity to string up the ooligan for wind-drying and some for smoking. I remember freezing my fingers off in the March wind as I learned how to carefully string the silver fish on thin strips of red cedar, weaving in and out of the gills, avoiding their sharp teeth, or performing similar tricks with the gills and mouths on long cedar sticks for the smokehouse. After long, exhausting, freezing hours we sat around the fire and ate some of the ooligans set aside for dinner. The taste of ooligans puts sardines to shame, I must say. All that grease must lead to the tastiness of its flesh, especially when roasted over the fire. I didn't have an opportunity to have some ooligan that way for 5 years and I have to say that it was even better than I remembered it.
But, back to grease. After living 5 years with the Heiltsuk Nation I have since understood that I didn't even yet taste the queen of greases which came from Kitimat. Not sold cheaply, this pale grease is sought by many for its quality. I tasted it first at a feast and was surprised at how tame it was in comparison to the previous kind I tasted in Aiyansh or smelled in Bella Coola. I actually found myself longing to taste Nass grease again. I guess, like with wines, everyone has their preferences.
Even though I couldn't have believed it 10 years ago, I wish now to do a taste sampling of each type of fermented fish grease all at once to understand the qualities and differences. However, closely guarded family treasure that it is in so many villages I doubt that will happen any time soon. All I ask for in return is a chance to eat more ooligans for dinner. mmmm...