Gourmet Trips

Eating whale meat – a Japanese tradition

It is not good writing to start with a conclusion. but before you activists start trolling me, let me say this – please understand and respect each other’s culture and tradition.

I have eaten some really strange things in Japan – horse, cod milt, fugu, cochin – but I have to say whale tops the list of unusual eats.

Akasaka Musashi 赤坂武蔵

The mainstay of this restaurant in Akasaka is shabu-shabu. But they also have blue fin tuna and whale cuisine as advertised on their signboard. The meal started with some more down to earth dishes.

くみあげ湯葉 、胡麻と塩で fresh yuba with soy milk, sesame and salt

くみあげ湯葉 、胡麻と塩で fresh yuba with soy milk, sesame and salt

くみあげ湯葉 (kumiage yuba) is freshly made bean curd skin served with fresh soy milk seasoned with just salt and sesame. It is a great otoshi for what we are going to eat later.

冷やしトマト chilled tomato

Even though they originated from South America, tomatoes are now grown all year round in Japan. The practice of eating tomatoes didn’t catch on in Japan until the Meiji Era when Kagome, the founder of Japan’s largest tomato-products company, began making tomato sauce in 1903 and ketchup in 1908. In postwar Japan the tomato was considered a luxury — especially the sweet varieties grown to be eaten raw.

冷やしトマト chilled tomato

Momotaro (fruit tomatoes) refers to tomatoes that ripen during the winter months. The concentration of sweetness because they are less juicy make them really good eats. The chilled momotaro is first poached in a sweet plum liquid and then peeled to reveal a firm and ripe fruit. It is served with a tangy yuzu jelly.

三崎港直送本鮪中トロ刺 Misaki Port chutoro sashimi

三崎港直送 本鮪 中トロ刺 Misaki Port chutoro sashimi

When I saw the balsamic vinegar reduction as decoration for the chutoro, I was a bit apprehensive. But the quality of the cut was fantastic, totally melt-in-mouth consistency.

Micro Mini Tomatoes are getting increasingly popular; they are only 8~10 mm and look somewhat like red currants. Very tasty with a beautiful acidity, the Japanese use them not only in salads, but also as the final touch on a plate of sashimi.

ホタテとアスパラのフライパン pan fried scallops with asparagus

ホタテとアスパラのフライパン pan fried scallops with asparagus

Not quite the highlight of the meal, it was a skimpy example of the Hokkaido scallop, although the asparagus was amazingly crisp and sweet.

干物 鯖 Grilled dried mackerel

干物 鯖 Grilled dried mackerel

Japan is famous as a nation that loves raw seafood. But dried fish has a much longer history here and has played an important role in Japanese society for hundreds of years. Himono was considered a luxury food until the Edo Period (1603-1868), except for people who lived along the coast. Himono from regions around the country flooded into Edo (modern-day Tokyo) and were embraced enthusiastically by its citizens.

In the days before refrigeration, himono was heavily salted since it had to keep for a while. But these days, it is made for its flavor rather than for its keeping qualities. Salting and drying fish concentrates the flavor, giving it a different character from fresh fish. Modern himono is much lower in salt than the ones of yore. 一夜干し鯖 (ichiyaboshi saba) refers to the overnight brining of fresh saba to concentrate the flavours as well as firm up the flesh. The dried fish is then grilled, and in this case in an electric grill as you can see the charring was quite even. It was yummy nevertheless.

ぷりぷりエビの自家製水餃子 shrimp dumpling

ぷりぷりエビの自家製水餃子 shrimp dumpling

This is a very unique dumpling – it’s flat like a ravioli but instead to the pasta skin, it uses the traditional dumpling skin. There is a whole shrimp in each packet and nothing else. The dumpling is boiled and then dressed with a white vinegar soy sauce and topped with pickled onions and served on a bed of blanched spinach.

ししとう唐辛子 Grilled shishito peppers

ししとう唐辛子 Grilled shishito peppers

Simple grilled sweet green peppers topped with bonito flakes and served with a sweet soy sauce.

炭火炙り焼き 旬菜 charcoal grilled vegetables

炭火炙り焼き 旬菜 charcoal grilled vegetables

Simple grill of baby corns, gingko nuts, small onions and snake beans.

トウモロコシとアボカドの天ぷら corn and avocado tempura

トウモロコシとアボカドの天ぷら corn and avocado tempura

Surprisingly good tempura.

おにぎり焼き Grilled onigiri

おにぎり焼き Grilled onigiri

Beautifully grilled onigiri made with mixed grains rice, served with pickled eggplant. Especially enjoyed the burnt bits of rice.

Dessert – Lime sorbet, strawberry and rice dumplings

Lime sorbet, strawberry and rice dumplings

If you do not wish to see whale being served, don’t scroll down and jump to another post now. You have been warned.

Pan fried scallops
ぷりぷりエビの自家製水餃子 shrimp dumpling

OK, you want to see some whale bring served as a cuisine.

The Whale Dishes

It is said that the history of whaling in Japan started in Taiji town in Wakayama Prefecture back in the Edo period. However, there is a written record of whales exchanged as gifts in an old document from the Nara period, so it is thought that the food tradition of whales has a long history even before the Edo period.

鯨のユッケ whale yukke

旬魚三点盛合せ 鯨のユッケ Assorted sashimi and whale yukke

On the sashimi where some akamai tuna and swordfish, but the whale yukke stole the show. Whale red meat has the texture of beef but simply didn’t have a whole lot of flavour. The whale meat is served as a yukke, chopped and served raw with sesame sweet miso dressing, topped with shredded torch ginger. Afterwards, I found myself craving something a bit tastier — like chutoro.

クジラ  ベーコン whale bacon

クジラ  ベーコン whale bacon

Whale bacon is whale fat. It is quite chewy with a very buttery taste.

鯨の畝須(うねす)whale blubber

鯨の畝須(うねす) whale blubber

This is the fatty layer under the skin of the whale called the 畝須(うねす)unesu. Unesu is the part of the whale that has vertical streaks from the lower chin to the abdomen, hence the distinctive ridges you can see on the surface. After salting and letting it rest for a few days, it is boiled and sliced and eaten with ginger soy sauce. It has a soft, spongy texture with very dense animal fat taste.

くじらの竜田 (kujirano tatsuta) deep fried whale steak

A dish of deep-fried whale meats which are seasoned with shoyu and ginger juice, and coated with katakuriko (flour). Kujirano tatsutaage used to be a staple food as an important source of protein in the postwar period in Japan. The food culture of eating whale meats has been carried on as a tradition in Wakayama, and kujirano tatsutaage is still served as school lunch.

Thoughts about Whaling

If whale isn’t even that tasty, why bother eating it at all?

It’s challenging to find the everyday beliefs of your own culture clashing with the practices of another country. The original reason that whale meat expanded from a regional staple in Japan to a nationwide one was the serious food shortage following World War II, and it was older people in a 2009 TBS (Japanese TV Station) survey who said they wanted to eat whale. According to their responses, that was mainly for nostalgic reasons. Most had eaten whale when they were growing up, since whale meat was a core component of school lunches.

A great deal has changed since then as Japan grew into one of the world’s most vibrant economies, and one of those changes is the greater availability of meat, specifically chicken, pork and beef. Japan is currently the object of criticism for its decision to leave the International Whaling Commission, and resume commercial whaling in territorial waters and its own exclusive economic zone. People who support the move cite either cultural reasons — Japan traditionally, they assert, is a whale-eating country — or the assumption that whales aren’t as endangered as the IWC claims they are.

I think the issue of harvesting non-endangered whales, as Japan does (along with Norway and a few others), ought to begin with how much did it suffer during the process. We have high moral (and legal) standards when it comes to cattle and poultry, how we should raise these and slaughter them. We have set fishing timetables to let the ocean rejuvenate. However, whaling in the name of science is still only way one can get whale meat, and hunting whales with a harpoon the only way to “harvest” the catch.

But here’s a very valid reason why you should not be taking whale meat (too often). Tests have revealed that in whale meat sold in Japan, high levels of mercury and other toxins are present. Acute mercury poisoning could result from a single ingestion of raw whale liver. So avoid it if you want to live.

Akasaka Musashi Shabu-Shabu Japanese Cuisine
赤坂武蔵 しゃぶしゃぶ 日本料理
港区赤坂3-12-11 セントラル赤坂ビルB1
Tel : 03-3224-1129


Date Visited : Jun 2017

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