Whales on the Table

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The International Whaling Commission talks being held in Morocco this week have fallen apart. The 88 member nations have been discussing the possibility of softening a 24-year-old moratorium on whaling, one of the first and most important international protection treaties. Despite the ban, people in some countries—most notably Japan—still eat whales, which are hunted under the guise of research.

Continuing yesterday's theme of controversial food, here's what I learned about different ways in which people consume the hulking marine creatures:

In Japan, some restaurants serve whale (mostly minke) so many ways it make me think of Forrest Gump. Fried whale, smoked whale, boiled whale, baked whale, barbecued whale, whale with cheese, whale steak, whale soup, whale sashimi...anyway you want it, you got whale. Slate contributor Seth Stevenson visited such a restaurant in 2003, and tried whale steak. “Most of us already eat mammal, and I find it difficult to rank whales and cows in a hierarchy of edibleness,” Stevenson wrote, comparing the taste to a fishy beef.

Whale is often served in Japan as nigiri—placed atop a little brick of rice and topped with a dab of minced green onion and ginger—or wrapped in rolls of seaweed with a quail egg and a sprinkle of sesame seeds. Rumor has it you can even procure slices of raw whale heart in some restaurants. Stores sell canned whale meat, and TV commercials advertise whale bacon.

However, the gamey sea meat is apparently not as popular among the Japanese as all that might lead you to think. In 2007, Time reported that Japan’s government had purchased tons of unused whale meat to turn into fish sticks and burgers for public-school lunch programs. Fearing declines in whale consumption, the Japanese Fisheries Association began promoting whale noshing with food trucks.

Whale has also made appearances on menus in the other two main whaling nations, Iceland and Norway. On a 2008 trip to Reykjavik, a Wall Street Journal reporter encountered whale on the menu at both a fine restaurant—in the form of sashimi with a wasabi crust and a ginger tea shooter—and a seafood shack (“Moby Dick on a stick,” anyone?). In Oslo, a restaurant called Alex Sushi serves dishes like whale nigiri.

Attitudes about eating whale are different in America, though. In March, federal prosecutors filed a criminal complaint against Santa Monica's The Hump for serving whale meat to their customers. The sushi bar, known for serving up exotic items, shut its doors in shame, closing the restaurant in a “self-imposed punishment.”

Perhaps the only place in the nation it’s considered acceptable is Alaska, where whaling is a tradition among indigenous people. Many of them enjoy a dish called muktuk, which consists of bricks of frozen whale meat (generally bowheads, gray whales or beluga whales) with the blubber still attached, generally eaten raw in thin slices.

Yesterday, Amanda asked if you would eat lion meat, and some of you said yes. How about whale meat?

I’ll admit, my mouth watered a little when writing this post. I don’t think I’ll ever eat whale, but it certainly does look like it could be delicious. That deep, rich red… perhaps it’s just been a little too long since lunch.

One person in our office actually has eaten whale. Last April, Smithsonian's Abigail Tucker shared her story of eating mattak, a variant of muktuk, on a reporting trip to Greenland:

It was tough as rubber, with a taste like congealed gravy. But the hunter’s eyes were upon me; I could not spit it out. In my head a chant began: Chew! Chew! Chew! Somehow, I downed the lump. "Delicious," I murmured; the hunter beamed. The scientists mercifully helped me finish the rest.

Maybe I’ll stick with land cows for now.

Guest writer Brandon Springer is spending the summer at Smithsonian magazine through an American Society of Magazine Editors internship.

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