Posted by: ritsukurimono | March 7, 2012

Eater of Whales

Once while I studying abroad was in Japan, my host parents asked me why Americans felt so strongly about whaling.

I shuffled my vocabulary about and drew a hand. “Well, it’s because they’re an endangered species…” I was on solid ground there. We’d just finished a unit on ecology.

But how then to continue? I tried to find a way to say that the first thing I had read by myself had been the World Wildlife Federation’s children’s magazine (Ranger Rick, holla!) and that I’d grown up in a region with the kind of whaling history that made visiting the whaling museum and watching Voyage of the Mimi compulsory during grade school.

This was in the dark winter of my immersion; I had such a hard time wrestling my vocabulary and grammar into the shapes I needed them to make.

“And… they’re…cute?” A swing and a miss.

My host parents roared with laughter. “Cute? Whales aren’t cute! They’re way too big to be cute!” And then they told me how whale meat had been the cheapest protein when they were growing up poor in post-war Kyushu and how they had eaten whale meatballs and whale steak and studied by the light of whale oil lamps until they’d grown utterly sick of the taste of it. “But it’s good if you haven’t eaten too much of it,” they said. “You should try it sometime.” The idea took root in my head beside with my blossoming foodieness. I’m not a squeamish eater but I am a curious one; I want to eat all the things! At least once.

But I did want to do it in as undamaging and sustainable a way as possible, so not in some sort of sketchy black market illicit sperm whale situation. I didn’t get a chance while I was studying abroad, but whale happens to be a traditional staple in the Icelandic diet (did you know vegetables were only brought to Iceland by the Danish in the late 17th century? That blew my mind) so I seized the opportunity on my first night of the vacation there.

Gamla vinhusid's pepper-crusted minke whale on a bed of roasted winter vegetables (thank you, Denmark!) with a bed of peppercorn gravy and a baked potato
Gamla vínhúsið’s pepper-crusted minke whale on a bed of roasted winter vegetables (thank you, Denmark!) with a peppercorn gravy and a baked potato.

It was fantastic. The taste is like red meat without the distinctive beefiness of beef (actually, it’s like horse, if any of you have eaten horse) with the texture and watery clarity of flavor of tuna. I had mine medium rare, so as you can see up there, it’s quite pink in the middle. Perhaps it’s a function of how it was prepared, but I didn’t find whalemeat to be chewy or recognizably muscular at all; it was silky and gave under my teeth like sashimi. The whale itself was filling without being heavy, but its hearty accompaniments were just what I wanted to fend off the blustery September chill.

I’m unlikely to eat it again, but I’m glad I did it at least once.

It was also a good warmup for the smoked puffin I ate three nights later. ^_^

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