Popping a bite of sea urchin into my mouth I look to the chalkboard at the far end of the sushi bar that lists the daily specials: young yellowtail tuna, mozuku seaweed, minke whale. The words for whale hang there in much the same way that a pig head stares back at you from the window of a Chinatown butcher shop.
Whale meat resembles venison with its heavily oxygenated, dark red color that suggests lean, high-protein muscle. In Japan, it can be found in some supermarkets for about $33 a pound. Whale is high in the fatty acids DHA and EPA and low in cholesterol. But not many Japanese eat the controversial seafood. And so, the Japan Fisheries Association is encouraging a whale consumption program and backing a Tokyo-based firm Geishoku Labo and the "Asian Lunch" trucks it sends to Tokyo's business districts. The truck serves whale boxed lunches on weekdays and, for the Thursday special, a special green or red keema curry with chunks of whale served with rice.
Typically, the whale's so-called lean meat from the breast and the tail are served up. But whale isn't only served slathered with some kind of condiment or sauce. Gourmands can slurp a long, thin sashimi cut of raw minke breast meat slippery like a fat noodle with a hint of sesame oil in any of the half dozen or so restaurants in Tokyo that specialize in whale. Sliced whale cartilage is prepared as a "sunomono salad and prized for its distinctive not-quite crunchy texture," says Japanese food specialist and author Elizabeth Andoh. The salad looks like whitish, semi-translucent, crinkled straw wrappers on a bed of curly maroon and green seaweeds. Says Andoh: "Mouth-feel is very important to the enjoyment of Japanese food."
Other preparations of whale hint at attempts to internationalize the meat: whale hot pots, as in Chinese-Mongolian cuisine where strips of meat are dipped in boiling soup; whale bacon (which can run as high as $145 a pound); Korean-style whale bi bim bap; and whale carpaccio. At a 2005 exhibition at the Kanazawa 21st Century Museum, all the dishes of a special dinner were prepared with whale meat. "The food was incredible," recalls one guest.
The meat's gamey quality, however, can be as much a turn off as some people's revulsion to the thought of eating Shamu. And freezers in Japanese public schools are stocked with nearly four tons of unsold, mainly minke, whale meat, which the government has bought and provided for school lunches. Eventually, they will be turned into fish sticks or burgers.
Outside of school cafeterias, Chefs try to reduce the gaminess with pepper, garlic, dried herbs, such as clove, coriander or cumin, and with fresh herbs, such as dill and chive. Tatsuta-age, in which whale is deep-fried, is a common preparation that is served with soy sauce and ginger.
Yukio Hattori, president of Tokyo-based Hattori Nutrition College and a leading food critic who admits a weakness for whale. Better known as "Doc" to Iron Chef fans, Hattori prefers a recipe from the Showa period (that is, the 1926-1989 reign of Emperor Hirohito). He says a "roast cut" steak is best prepared after a good marinating in grated white onion, which tenderizes the meat, and then pan-fried with a little soy sauce. Hattori says that the price of the most prized part of the whale the tail meat is on par with that of Kobe beef, roughly $28 for 3.5 oz. (100 grams).
"Whales are cute. They are intelligent, genius creatures that endear humans to want to interact with them," he says, "But we are a fishing people. Whale hunting is a part of our culture-not just our food culture." It's part of the culture that younger Japanese aren't all that familiar with, however. And it also happens to infuriate other nations.
Reports about Japan's plans for a newer, bigger whaling ship with an estimated cost of $120 million signal the government's commitment to a large stake in high seas whaling. One U.S. government official says: "That's not a good sign." The Japanese, however, are listening to the international community and changing its whaling targets for example, deciding not to hunt humpback whales. But, for now, whale stays on the menu and on the plate.
As for me, I'll stick with the yellowtail.