Photo by David Nakamura
One rule of thumb I generally observe while traveling abroad: Always know what something is before putting it in your mouth. Recently, I broke that rule--and ended up regretting it.
I ate whale meat.
I didn't mean to. It just sort of happened during an otherwise routine company enkai --office party--at a hole-in-the-wall izakaya called Andy's Shin Hinomoto under the Yurakucho railroad tracks in central Tokyo. I ordered a beer and sat down next to my co-workers, just as the waitress was bringing out plates of food: generous cuts of sashimi , deep-fried chicken nuggets, a sautÃ©ed mushroom salad and--what the heck was that? On a plate next to some lettuce leaves and a wedge of tomato were thin-cut strips of stringy red meat.
Most Japanese I know don't eat much whale. But several agreed that the country should not be cowed into taking it off menus because of international standards.
"Is that corned beef?" I asked, dumbfounded because the Japanese are not known for eating the deli-sandwich staple. There was even a dab of Dijon mustard on the plate.
"Try it and guess," replied my coworker Shigeo Asanuma, who goes by the nickname Shiggy.
So I did. The meat was salty and chewy, though a bit tougher than corned beef. There was also a strip of white fat clinging to it. I stuck to my guns--had to be beef.
"Whale," Shiggy said.
"I hope you're not a member of Greenpeace."
My co-workers laughed. I blanched. Andy Lunt, a 50-year-old Brit who has been running the restaurant with his Japanese in-laws for 23 years, must have seen my contorted face, because he leaned in and confided that I was eating Minke whale. From Lunt's tone, I took it to mean that Minke is not endangered.
The consumption of whale meat in Japan has been a matter of contentious international debate for years. Despite a moratorium on commercial whaling established by the International Whaling Commission in 1986, Japan continues to harvest whales in the name of scientific research, culling an estimated 900 last year alone. Anti-whaling groups have called the program a thinly-guised method of restocking grocery and restaurant supplies of edible whale sashimi and cured whale ham, such as the kind I ate at Andy's Shin Hinomoto.
Photo by Dave Nakamura
Two days later, Lunt then invited me to join him on his morning rounds at Tokyo's famed Tsukiji fish market , where he buys fresh rations three or four times a week. He picked me up in his silver Toyota at 9 a.m. and we drove a couple miles to the Tsukiji market, through which, according to Lunt, one-fifth of the world's fish stock is processed each day. After a half-dozen large distributors bid on the stock at auction starting around dawn, the supplies are divvied up among hundreds of vendors, who sell the fish to some 15,000 grocers and restaurateurs, Lunt said.
In his striped polo and olive cargo pants, Lunt, who is tall, bald, and Caucasian, looks like one of the handful of tourists who are browsing the market. But his is a familiar face to the vendors, who greet him as "Andy-san," and jump to show off their wares. Some have saved special cuts of fish for him. He carries about $2,000 worth of Japanese yen in cash in his pocket, shelling it out for scallops, mahi mahi, cod, shrimp, mackerel, and a fish known here as "kinki," which translates to orange roughy.
Lunt came to Tokyo from his native Leicester, England, after his Japanese wife Etsko, whom he met and married in London, informed him that her parents wanted to pass on their restaurant to him. Etsko's family, the Nishizawas, have owned the place since 1945. Lunt had limited restaurant experience when he arrived 23 years ago, but he now runs the 190-seat establishment so well that his in-laws are planning to formally sign over the restaurant to him in October. It is a milestone he is anticipating with obvious relief; working for your parents-in-law isn't easy.
I kept wondering where the whale dealers were. Finally, I spied the strips of red meat that Lunt had served--wrapped tightly in cellophane, looking more like packs of bacon than corned beef. I took the opportunity to ask Lunt why he served whale.
"My understanding is that the whole thing is purely a political issue," Lunt said of the controversy. "There are certain elements--the nationalists--who believe it is not right for other countries to tell Japan what it can and cannot eat."
Lunt went on to explain that it was the Americans who encouraged the Japanese to eat whale as a cheap source of protein in the rebuilding years after World War II. Now, ironically, it is the Americans who are among the loudest to condemn Japan for continuing to eat it, Lunt said.
Most Japanese don't even like whale , he added. "It's the old boys who come in and order it," Lunt said. "Some people come in and say I shouldn't serve whale. But I don't mind a little controversy."
The Japanese whaling industry is again in the spotlight in the wake of a new documentary called The Cove , by director Louie Psihoyos, that seeks to expose the country's dolphin-hunting industry. Foreign Policy magazine also recently highlighted Japanese whaling in a critical light.
In fact, most Japanese I know don't eat much whale, which is now fairly expensive. But several agreed that the country should not be cowed into taking it off menus because of international standards. Some Japanese have argued that Minke whales, in particular, are actually growing in number and threatening to eliminate some species of fish.
About a week after eating whale, I joined my co-workers on another enkai. During dinner, I asked what other unusual foods they had eaten.
"Crocodile," said Tetsu Hasegawa, who has traveled to Australia.
"Dog," Shiggy said. "It was in China. I was like you with whale; I didn't know what it was."
Was he angry when he learned it was dog? "Not really. It is considered a delicacy."
"Ostrich," Hasegawa continued.
"Kangaroo," Shiggy said.
Andy's Shin Hinomoto is at 2-4-4 Yurakucho, Tokyo, Japan. Phone 03-3214-8021. Hours: 5 p.m. to midnight.