Whale meat is the flesh of whales used for consumption by humans or other animals, and broadly includes other consumed parts as blubber, skin, and organs. It is prepared in various ways, and has historically been eaten in many parts of the world, including across Western Europe and Colonial America, and not necessarily restricted to coastal communities, since flesh and blubber can be salt-cured.
Practice of whale consumption continues today in Japan, Norway, Iceland, Faroe Islands, South Korea, China, the Inuit and other indigenous peoples of the United States (including the Makah people of the Pacific Northwest), Canada, Greenland; the Chukchi people of Siberia, and in St. Vincent and the Grenadines (mainly on the island of Bequia) in the Caribbean.
In Europe, whale could once be hunted locally throughout the Middle Ages for their meat and oil. Under Catholicism, aquatic creatures were generally considered "fish"; therefore whale was deemed suitable for eating during Lent and other "lean periods". An alternative explanation is that the Church considered "hot meat" to raise the libido, making it unfit for holy days. Parts submerged in water, such as whale or beaver tails, were considered "cold meat."
Eating whale meat did not end with the Middle Ages in Europe, but rather, whale stock in nearby oceans collapsed due to overexploitation, especially the right whales around the Bay of Biscay. (See History of Whaling.) Thus European whalers (the Basques, especially, were known for their expertise) had to seek out the New World to catch whales. The Dutch (Flemish) were also active in the whaling commerce during the Middle Ages, and a number of records regarding the trafficking of whalemeat and taxation on it occur from historical Flanders (extending to cities like Arras or Calais in the département of Pas de Calais).
French surgeon Ambroise Paré (d. 1590) wrote that "the flesh has no value, but the tongue is soft and delicious and therefore salted; likewise, the blubber, which is distributed across many provinces, and eaten with peas during Lent". This blubber, known as craspois or lard de carême was food for the poorer strata on the continent. The whaling industry in North America may have supplied rendered fat, partly for consumption in Europe.
In early America, whalemen may have eaten blubber after rendering, which they termed "cracklings" or "fritters", said to be crunchy like toast; these were certainly reused as fuel chips to boil down the fat. Colonial America also more commonly consumed the meat and other portions of the "blackfish" (or pilot whale). However, by the beginning of large-scale commercial whaling, whale meat was not consumed by the general American public, as it was not seen as fit for consumption by so-called civilized peoples.
During the post-World War II period in the United Kingdom, corned whale meat was available as an unrationed alternative to other meats. Sold under the name "whacon", the meat was described as "corned whalemeat with its fishy flavour removed", and was almost identical to corned beef, except "brownish instead of red". The Food Ministry emphasised its "high food value".
Minke whale is one of the most common species still hunted in substantial numbers. Baleen whales other than the minke are endangered, though they are taken in numbers by indigenous peoples who traditionally hunt them, and more lately, the whaling nations have resumed hunting larger baleen whales openly.
In 1998-1999, Harvard researchers published their DNA identifications of samples of whalemeat they obtained in the Japanese market, and found that mingled among the presumably legal (i.e. minke whale meat) was a sizeable proportion of dolphin and porpoise meats, and instances of endangered species such as fin whale and humpback whale. (blue whale DNA was also detected in the study, but researchers have attributed those findings to crossbreeding with fin whales, and that view has since been strengthened.)
In recent years Japan has resumed taking North Pacific fin whale and sei whales in their research whaling. The fin whales are highly desired because they yield arguably the best quality of tail meat (onomi). Japanese research vessels refer to the harvested whale meat as incidental byproducts which have resulted from study.
The channels through which premium cuts such as fin whale tail meat are sold remain opaque. A report by one of the Greenpeace Japan activists who intercepted whale meat package deliveries got no further than the sentiment by one restaurateur that it would take Nagatachō (i.e. high government) connections to get it.
In Norway, whale meat was a cheap and common food until the 80s. It could be used in many ways but was often cooked in a pot with lid in a little water so that broth was created and then served with potatoes and vegetables, often with flatbrød at the side.
The consumption of whale meat by the Inuit people in Greenland is part of their culture. However, in 2010, tourists also have begun to consume the meat. A Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society (WDCS) investigation has documented the practice of commercial wholesalers commissioning subsistence whalers to supply the demand by supermarkets. Whale products in Greenland are sold in 4-star hotels.
In modern-day Japan, two cuts of whale meat are usually created: the belly meat and the tail meat. In the early 19th century, 70 different cuts were known. People still call the belly and tail cuts by their special whalemeat names, and also, different parts of the body such as the tongue retain their jargon names (see below). The tail meat is not the same as the fluke (tail flipper), and they go by different names.
As previously mentioned, different cuts of whale meat have specialised names. The belly meat, in the striped bellows-like underbelly of baleen whales "from the lower jaw to the navel", is called unesu (ウネス（畝須）?) and is known for being made into whale bacon.
The prized tail meat, called onomi (尾の身?) or oniku (尾肉?) are two strips of muscle that run from the dorsal to the base of the fluke. The tail meat is regarded as marbled, and is eaten as sashimi or tataki. Even Masanori Hata (aka Mutsugorō) a zoologist author and animal shelter operator has extolled the delicacy of the tail meat. It can only be derived from larger baleen whales, and the fin whale's meat has been considered superior. When the ban on this species was in place and Japan supposedly complied, what was claimed to be genuine fin whale was still available, and legitimized as "grandfathered" goods, i.e., frozen stock from animals caught when still legal. In the past when blue whale hunting was still conducted by all nations, its tail fin was served in Japan.
The other portions are labelled lean, or “red meat” (赤肉 akaniku) and command much lower prices than the tail.
The fluke or tail flipper is referred to as either oba (尾羽?) or obake (尾羽毛?) . After being cured in salt it is thinly sliced, scalded with hot water and rinsed, and served as sarashi kujira (pictured).
The tongue, called saezuri (さえずり?) is often processed and used in high-end oden. The fried skin after the blubber is called koro, and analogous to "fritter/crackling".
- Harihari-nabe is a hot pot dish, consisting of whalemeat boiled with mizuna.
- Sashimi of Abura-sunoko is striped layers of meat made from the root of the flippers.
- Udemono, consists of innards that have been boiled and sliced.
As of 2006, in Japan, 5,560 tons of whale meat worth ¥5.5 billion is sold in every year. The Japanese market has declined in recent years, with prices falling to $26 per kilogram in 2004, down $6 per kilogram from 1999. Fluke meat can sell for over $200 per kilogram, over three times the price of belly meat.
Greenpeace has alleged that some of the meat on sale is illegally sourced. They have claimed that it has been illegally smuggled from crew members of research ships and that more meat is caught than can be consumed by humans, with up to 20% of 2004's catch going unsold.
Native Alaskan communities
For thousands of years, Native Alaskans of the Arctic have depended on whale meat. The meat is harvested from legal, non-commercial hunts that occur twice a year in the spring and autumn. The meat is stored and eaten throughout the winter.
Tikiġaġmiut, Iñupiat living on the coast of Alaska, divided their catch into 10 sections. The fatty tail, considered to be the best part, went to the captain of the conquering vessel, while the less-desired sections were given to his crew and others that assisted with the kill.
The skin and blubber, known as muktuk, taken from the bowfin, beluga, or narwhal is also valued, and is eaten raw or cooked. Mikigaq is the fermented whale meat.
Whaling in the Faroe Islands in the North Atlantic has been practiced since about the time of the first Norse settlements on the islands. Around 1000 Long-finned Pilot Whales (Globicephala melaena) are killed annually, mainly during the summer. The hunts, called "grindadráp" in Faroese, are organized on a community level.
Both the meat and blubber are stored and prepared in various ways, including Tvøst og spik. When fresh, the meat is often boiled. It can also be served as steak (grindabúffur). This dish comprises meat and blubber, which is salted and then boiled for an hour, served with potatoes. The meat can also be hung out to dry and then served in thin slivers. At parties some choose to serve "kalt borð" (cold table), which means a variety of cold food, which can include dried whale meat, dried blubber or blubber which is preserved in water with much salt in it, dried fish, dried sheep meat, etc. Traditionally, whale meat was preserved by hanging salted pieces (called "likkjur") outdoors under a roof to be dried in the wind. This method is still used today, particularly in villages. Today, both meat and blubber can also be stored in freezers.
In 2008, Faroe Islands Chief Medical Officer Høgni Debes Joensen and Pál Weihe of the Department of Public and Occupational Health recommended that pilot whales no longer be considered fit for human consumption due to the presence of DDT derivatives, PCBs and mercury in the meat. Their recommendation was based on research suggesting a correlation between mercury intake and the high rate of Parkinson's disease on the islands. As of 1 June 2011, the Faroese Food and Veterinary Authority has advised Faroe Islanders not to eat the kidney or liver of pilot whales, not to consume more than one serving per month, and, for women and girls, to refrain from eating blubber if they plan to have children and to refrain from whale meat entirely if they are breastfeeding, pregnant or planning to conceive in the following three months.
During World War II the British Minister of Food introduced food rationing but allowed whale meat to be distributed 'off ration'. It was not popular because of the smell whilst cooking was deemed 'unpleasant', and the taste was considered 'bland' even when spiced
Tests have revealed that in whale meat sold in the Faroe Islands and Japan, high levels of mercury and other toxins are present. A research study was conducted by Tetsuya Endo, Koichi Haraguchi and Masakatsu Sakata at the University of Hokkaido found high levels of mercury in the organs of whales, particularly the liver. They stated that "Acute intoxication could result from a single ingestion" of liver. The study found that liver samples for sale in Japan contained, on average, 370 micrograms of mercury per gram of meat, 900 times the government's limit. Levels detected in kidneys and lungs were approximately 100 times higher than the limit. The effect is due to the animal's trophic level, however, rather than its size. This means that there is a significant difference between the mercury levels in toothed whales and baleen whales, the former having a much higher concentration.
Norwegian-based High North Alliance, has suggested that the carbon footprint resulting from eating whale meat is substantially lower than that of beef. Greenpeace has responded that, "The survival of a species is more important than lower greenhouse gas emissions from eating it." Many organizations, including Greenpeace and Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, have criticised the whale trade for preying on endangered species, as studies have shown an alarming decrease in whale populations, which may significantly affect oceans and its foodchains, therefore it will affect our lives in a foreseable future.
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