When the Year of the Boar last popped up on the Chinese zodiac calendar, exactly 12 years ago, few thought to celebrate the hairy tuskers by eating them.
This year, however, consuming wild game is gaining in popularity in Japan, and wild boar meat is one of the favorites on menus featuring what Japanese refer to as “jibie” from the French name “gibier” for wild game. While gibier is available in many parts of the country, it’s Tottori Prefecture, in the Chugoku region of Honshu, that aims to take game to the next level.
Japan’s most sparsely people-populated prefecture, Tottori boasts rolling mountains and fresh waters loaded with deer and boar. Since both animals damage crops, lack predators in Japan and threaten the natural balance in delicate forest ecosystems, hunters have been given license to cull animal populations. Eager to not be wasteful — by burying or burning game — hunters have liaised with leaders in Tottori to bring the idea of game consumption out of the woods.
Harumi Yonemura, 58, is on the board of directors for the Japan Gibier Promotion Association and a member of the Promotion Council of Inaba’s Gibier in Tottori. He’s also an enthusiastic fan of gibier. In fact, Yonemura adds to his stature and impact by greeting people in a nifty samurai helmet adorned with deer antlers.
“The benefits of carefully prepared wild game are multitude,” he says, laying the helmet and humor aside. “Wild meat is higher in protein, yet far lower in calories than farm- or industrially raised meats.” In fact, he explains, studies show that when comparing equal portions of pork and wild boar, the wild beast meat is approximately one-third the calories.
So why hasn’t wild game long been the darling of the diet-obsessed in Japan? The reason stems from early interpretations of Buddhist edicts, which suggested that killing and consuming animals was taboo. Inhabitants in remote areas, of course, did not have the luxury of such high-minded ideals, so hunters often took wild deer and boar meat home, or sold it on the sly, using floral euphemisms such as botan (peony) for boar and momiji (autumn leaves) for deer.
Once the Meiji Era began (1868), Western dietary practices drew notice, and Japanese began raising domestic animals for consumption. Still, the onus of eating wild animals, combined with the risks of parasites and tainting, kept gibier out of mainstream attention. Today, though, refined techniques of field dressing, flash-chilling and inventive preparation have made gibier a palatable taste adventure in sustainable eating.
Game season months, usually from November through March, are when wild boar has the tastiest muscle-to-fat ratio, and for novices to gibier, Tottori’s botan nabe, or wild boar hotpot, is a perfect way to cut your teeth.
Shofuso Inn offers an upscale version of this meal, and the restaurant is conveniently located a short walk from Tottori’s tranquil historic area of Kurayoshi, famous for its Shirakabe Dozogun district of white-walled warehouses and akagawara (red-glazed roof tiles).
Once guests are seated with a view toward Shofuso’s lovely traditional garden, Mari Nishizaka, 26, arrives to light a tabletop gas burner under a covered nabe pot of miso-based broth. Guests can relax and chat as the broth builds up steam before Nishizaka carries in a presentation platter of vegetables, tofu and bright pink strips of boar, the color of ribbon candy. In a long-practiced patter, she explains each local vegetable, and then names the slices of fatty boar loin and strips of rib meant to be briefly bathed in the bubbling broth.
While wild boar has a slightly firmer texture compared to domestic pork, careful preparation almost entirely eradicates the pungent odor often associated with game. In addition, Shofuso has a variety of wild boar side dishes, including herb-rubbed grilled ribs, fried niblets of roast boar and cheese, and confit prepared with eringi king oyster mushrooms.
For Tottori’s other gibier star, wild deer, the place to head is Sanshien, an Inaba-based onsen (hot spring) hotel. Here, Yonemura introduces me to chef Masaru Oba, who has just developed a full kaiseki-style (traditional multicourse) dinner based on wild venison.
Though most gibier in Japan is prepared as a Western-style offering, Oba spends days tenderizing and prepping deer meat to give it extraordinarily beef-like texture and sweet flavor. From a sake-braised venison dish in a tangy nutty sauce (spring onions, miso and vinegar), to dashi soup stock made from deer meat dried, smoked and shaved like bonito flakes, to sushi featuring two delectable slices of inner thigh meat, Oba’s ingenuity and virtuosity are on display, and they bring in customers. “But,” Oba says, “older people are reluctant to try the new menu. They are expecting a strong odor, and they have preconceptions. We have to work hard to change that.”
According to Yonemura, wild venison has the advantage of being available year-round, but each season presents its own challenges.
“While winter might seem the ideal season for eating it, due to the animal’s increase in fat, as is the case with deer in Hokkaido, it’s different for Tottori deer,” he explains. “In late fall and winter months, bucks send out pheromones for mating, and that means the meat doesn’t smell good. We can cull the females then, instead. But since the taste of our venison is greatly affected by what the deer eat, we find that spring, when food is more plentiful, is when their flavor improves. Toward the end of summer, they are at their best.”
Yonemura details the complicated coordination necessary between hunters, the drivers of temperature-controlled cars (capable of keeping the meat from spoiling without freezing it), specialists who determine whether the meat is fit for consumption and how it should be butchered, chefs and clientele.
He burrows into some scary details — “Japanese venison often has parasites, so the fur needs to be singed off entirely” — but despite all the hurdles, Yonemura sounds confident that Tottori has a sustainable and world-class product.
Yonemura’s optimism is surely bolstered by the selection of Tottori’s venison as the key cuisine ingredient in chef Hideki Takayama’s winning entry to the 2017 Bocuse d’Or Japan cuisine competition. Takayama, who also won the following 2018 Bocuse d’Or Asia Pacific competition will go on to compete in the 2019 international Bocuse d’Or, arguably the most famous culinary competition in the world, held once every two years in Lyon, France