Monday, March 17, 2008

3/18/08 Spring is Here, Why Not Eat Some Whale?

The weather has been warm enough that I could venture outside jacketless the last couple days. Spring is still having some hot again/cold again mood swings, but anything is better than the frigid, windy Ashikaga winter. Since the third year students have graduated and so are off of my work schedule, things have been a whole lot less stressful. It's funny, with a third of my kids gone, I have about the same amount of classes to teach as the English teachers at the other schools. So this is what it must be like, I can actually chat with the other teachers, plan a lesson, or clean my desk. Yesterday I even had enough energy to play outside with the kids after my lessons were finished.

Well I have been taking advantage of the warmth and I have had a pretty eventful few days. Not being cold all the time has really brightened my mood. Where to start?

Its only been about a week since the Sea Shepherd conservation group finished hounding the Japanese whaling fleet all over the pacific (article here). It was quite an action filled expedition. At one point two of the whale lovers boarded a Japanese whaling ship, were captured, and were held for two days before being released. The conservationists hurled a barrage of foul smelling rotten butter and other unpleasantries onto the deck of the whaling ships, allegedly earning one of them a slug in his bullet proof vest.

I read about the saga online as it unfolded, interested more because it involved Japan than because I have a strong passion for sea mammals. I saw several pictures of the incidents on the newspapers randomly strewn on coworkers' desks, and I slipped it into a conversation with one of the more advanced English speaking teachers to see how he felt about it. He seemed a bit bewildered about why so many western countries are so rabid about protecting whales. We talked a bit about it, and I'll share the opinion that I have developed. I think that the whales should be protected from extinction, but that they can be hunted responsibly just like any other animals. If whales became as numerous as deer are in Illinois, than it seems that hunting them is acceptable.

Well, I felt like after all the reading and discussion, that I was still missing a vital piece of information. Sure, its easy for someone to say "stop whaling because its wrong, and who eats that stuff anyway?" Its easy to preach to people to stop a practice that you don't fully understand in the first place. So I mentioned that I might like to try whale meat, as its not available in the US, and I probably would not have another chance. My teachers (due to our canned-sardine proximity, what starts off as a two person conversation often turns into a group discussion) were either impressed or amused, and a couple of them even tried to find a place in town where I could satisfy my curiosity. They eventually gave up, saying that I should just go to Tokyo to try some.

Fast forward to the end of last week, when one of the younger teachers proudly declared that he had found a place in town that serves whale, and that he could take me there. Awesome. The funny part was after all of the searching, the restaurant ended up being not 5 minutes from my house, in a little sushi bar that I had already been to once before(I wrote a bit about it and you can relive the memories here). He handed me the little newspaper clipping where he had discovered the place, and I gathered that the whale on the menu was Minke, which I checked online to make sure it isn't endangered or anything (its not).

So me and four other younger Japanese teachers all went out to this place to partake. Maybe half the of them hadn't had whale before either, so we were all in this together. First thing, first, though. Often when you sit down at a place that serves food as well as alcohol, you will be presented with a small dish of food that you did not order and have no choice but to pay for(I believe the word for it is otoshi). I think its purpose is to make a little extra money off of people who may have no intention of ordering food but take up valuable space all the same.

Well, as you can imagine, over the past half year quite an assortment of foul tasting things have been set in front of me. Having already payed for the thing as soon as it hits the table, I usually try to force myself to eat it regardless. Sometimes its a little salad, a strong tasting pickled vegetable, unidentified meat, whatever. In one special instance, at El Mundo (picture here), the table food was a few slices of raw horse meat. Not bad. This time, though, it was an entire skinned fish (minus the head and those damned eyes, mercifully). It had been marinated in a sauce and ended up being quite tasty. We learned later on that the mystery fish was fugu, or poison puffer fish (poison organs removed, I assumed/hoped). This anticlimactic discovery was hilarious to me, as I have been wanting to try fugu for years.

So after our poison fish appetizer and some salads it was whale time. The first dish was whale sashimi, which pretty much involved little raw chunks of the meat in a bowl. My first impression was that the meat was fairly similar to beef only with a small hint of fishiness, but I've never sat and eaten a raw steak so its possible that I just have nothing to reference. The veins of fat in the meat were few, but if I did hit one, chewing through it took some doing.

Whale sashimi

It feels like a bad joke is in order. How about... It was a whale of a time.

Next came the breaded and fried whale pieces. I enjoyed them much more than the first incarnation, as the preparation was a bit closer to what I am accustomed.

It looks safe enough, doesn't it?

We had a third plate that was also quite delicious. This one was in the same little cutlets, but it came unbreaded and cooked more like a traditional beef steak. It looked enough like steak that I didn't even bother to take a picture.

Here's one last picture of a non-whale dish. This was a bit like mashed potatoes, wrapped in a bit of seaweed paper and then deep fried. A good combination of crunchy and creamy.

I guess I was surprised at how much I liked the whale and how fairly normal it was. I had envisioned something like a big pile of steaming blubber and a spoon to eat it with. So there you have it, my first and most likely only whale encounter.

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