A Santa Monica, Calif., sushi restaurant has been charged with serving endangered whale meat to its customers. Two activists initiated the investigation by ordering kujira, Japanese for whale meat, then stuffing some into their napkins for transport to an Oregon laboratory. (The restaurant obligingly listed the order as “whale” on their receipt.) What does whale taste like?
It’s similar to reindeer or moose. Whale tastes much more like its hairy cousins on land than its gilled neighbors in the sea. In places where gamey meats are common—like Norway, Iceland, and among the indigenous people of Alaska—whale is served straight up with little or no seasoning. For those who find its unrefined flavor off-putting, whale is cured, marinated, or slathered with a flavorful sauce. Whale bacon, marketed in shrink-wrapped packages of thin marbled slices closely resembling pork bacon, is offered at some Japanese markets. Whale meat curries are sold from a few Tokyo lunch trucks. Japanese schools are currently trying to figure out a way to get children to eat the meat for lunch, possibly turning to whale burgers or fish stick-style preparations. But some Japanese traditionalists still enjoy gamey, unadorned strips of whale meat sashimi. (Slate’s Seth Stevenson offers an opposing viewpoint: He thinks whale is a delicious beef-fish hybrid.)
The finer points of cetacean butchery have been lost over time. In modern-day Japan, where whale has become a fringe product, the muscle is generally divided into two cuts: belly meat and tail meat. But an 1832 whale cookbook listed 70 different cuts for human consumption, and, even in the 1980s, one of the few remaining wholesalers offered 60 whale cuts. Coastal Eskimos had a strict spoils system after a successful whale hunt, dividing the catch into 10 sections. The best part—that’s the fatty tail—went to the captain of the conquering ship, the lesser sections around the eyes and blowhole to his crew and other boats that assisted with the kill, and the leftovers to also-ran captains and their crews. (In Japan, fluke meat sells for well over $100 per pound, more than three times the asking price for belly meat.)
Japanese whale meat restaurants—which are rare and don’t flaunt their presence to Westerners—also serve cubed and grilled blubber, cartilage salads, and whale skin stew. In times gone by, Japanese noblemen consumed whale gums, too, and served the trachea and duodenum to the poor. The practice of spreading the whale out among many people is based in the Buddhist principle that it’s better to sacrifice a single soul to feed many than to kill many animals to feed one person. Thus many schools of Buddhism favor eating whales (and recommend against eating shrimp).
The amount of whale that’s eaten in Japan has fluctuated over the years. A staple in some communities in previous centuries, the meat fell out of favor in the early 20th century. Following World War II, when the country’s infrastructure was badly damaged, whale meat made a comeback, providing nearly half of the country’s protein by some accounts. In recent years, it has fallen off again. While the United States is now a strong opponent of whale consumption, it, too, once turned to whale during times of shortage. Federal authorities held a luncheon (PDF) at the American Museum of Natural History in 1918, trying to push whale as a home-front substitute for the beef that our troops craved. (The menu was prepared by the head chef from Delmonico’s.) One attendee called the meat “as delicious a morsel as the most aesthetic or sophisticated palate could possibly yearn for.” Others said it was “not very different from plain, ordinary pot roast, only a little richer.”
Nutritionally, whale meat is a bit of a mixed bag. Both the tail and belly meat are lower in fat and calories and higher in protein than most cuts of pork and beef (although chicken breast and fish beat the mammals in all three categories). Whale is comparable to fish in omega-3 content. Studies, however, have shown whale meat also carries dangerously high levels of mercury and PCB.
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Explainer thanks Trevor Corson, author of The Story of Sushi: An Unlikely Saga of Raw Fish and Rice, and David Nakamura of the Washington Post.