Eating whale: The taste of controversy

Eating whale: The taste of controversy

While environmentalists battle it out with Japanese conservatives over the issue, whale meat remains widely available in Tokyo. Make sure to ask before you eat anything that looks like beef
whale meat
Whale meat sashimi tastes even better if you add the relish of staunch cultural relativism.

David Nakamura wrote on "The Atlantic" website about his unwitting encounter with whale meat at the famed Tokyo izakaya Andy's Shin Hinomoto (2-4-4 Yurakucho, Chiyoda-ku, tel. 03 3214 8021). "The meat was salty and chewy, though a bit tougher than corned beef. There was also a strip of white fat clinging to it," he said.

Nakamura was pretty sure at the point of mid-chew that it must have been some manner of cow-based product.

But no, this was whale meat. The dish tends to show up on menus across Japan -- albeit as a kind of 'dare' food for kids and a nostalgic flashback for the elderly who ate it at school in the impoverished '50s. Nakamura's experience is not so unusual: Likely a friend will order up some whale bacon and be mysteriously silent as he bids you to start digging in. As soon as the whale hits your mouth, sinister grinning will spread across the table.

The Japanese culinary embrace of whale is now a full-fledged global controversy, with animal activists launching complaints and local conservatives claiming a cultural right to eat whatever they want. The nutritional value is also up in the air: The meat is high in protein, but also high in toxins like mercury and PCB. Lost in the muddle is that there is not much everyday demand for whale amongst the normal population. No one eats a Minke without the 'Hey, Ma, I'm eatin' whale!' treatment.

In Tokyo, these are famous whale meat restuarants: Taruichi (Daiichi Asakawa Building 5F, 1-17-12 Kabukicho, Shinjuku-ku, tel. 03 3208 9772) in Kabukicho and Kujiraya (Dogenzaka 2-29-22, Shibuya-ku, tel. 03 3461 9145) in Shibuya.

Both are moderately expensive (around ¥4000 upwards per course) and neither offer a post meal mercury test.