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I don’t remember the first time I bit down on a chunk of whale meat, but I know exactly where it happened. It was on the streets of Busan, a port city at the far tip of South Korea, where I spent the better part of the 1990s teaching English.
Korean food has never caught on here the way Chinese or Japanese food has, which is unfortunate. One reason for that may be its delivery; some of the best Korean morsels are had on the street, often long after midnight, from carts set in the path of staggering drunks on their way home from the bar.
In the downtown section of Busan where I did my drinking, hawkers serve noodle soup in greasy plastic bowls, plates of spicy chicken sphincters, and deep-fried vegetables with communal bowls of soy sauce for dipping. And at a small stand lit with bulbs attached to a car battery, you can buy thin slices of whale meat.
Herman Melville, king of all things leviathan, described the nuggets this way: “They have such an eatable look that the most self-denying stranger can hardly keep his hands off.”
Good way to put it. Though by the time I sat down at the whale cart, I was long beyond my self-denying days and deep into my “completest” stage, a mission that ran its course through dog meat, wine infused with a bear’s gallbladder, steamed silkworm larvae, turtle soup, and tiny octopus with enough reverberant muscle memory to suck the inside of your cheek.
I pinched a slice of whale with my silver chopsticks and ate, over and over again, for years. And here’s why: Unlike other weird and nasty bites (and despite containing enough mercury to stock a thermometer plant), whale meat is superb. It tastes a lot like roast beef, with an added richness and texture that’s fatty, oily, and oddly appealing.
Recently, in a discussion on good food unavailable in our city, I remembered how much I missed the taste of whale meat. I couldn’t be the only one, and I reasoned that a delicacy so readily available in Korea and other countries probably has its fans—and purveyors—in the D.C. area, despite the fact that it is illegal to hunt, take, transport, sell, import, or export whale. So I went looking.
I quickly learned I am a whale neophyte, a man who eats a Salisbury steak and claims himself a beef aficionado. Korean street whale is low-scale compared to the whale sashimi (and probably even the whale burgers) served in Japan.
And like sashimi, tiny slices of Korean street whale are more of a snack, not a meal—nothing compared to the massive whale steaks covered in gravy and served with a side of potatoes in Norway.
With this in mind, I figured Washington’s Norwegian community would be a whale-meat gold mine. Yet unlike the country’s social welfare system and its cloudberry jam, whale-meat feasts aren’t something Norwegians brag about to outsiders. That’s because despite international norms of good taste and a moratorium on whaling, Norway, along with other countries (some of which couch their hunt in the name of science), continues to hunt whale.
One Norwegian expat who agreed to talk asked that I not use his name. He explained he had eaten whale as a child, in a voice tinged with dread, as if he had felled the beast with his own harpoon. And no, he didn’t have any in his freezer.
And further, said my unnamed source, his home country hunts only minke whales and usually only between 500 and 600 a year.
One Norwegian who was less reticent is Ole Morten Orset, a 37-year-old radio correspondent who lives in Arlington. Orset says whale was considered “poor man’s beef” when he was a kid, but has gained cachet since there is less of it for sale. He likes a good whale meat steak, but not enough to smuggle it. “How do you sneak in a whale?” he says. “Since it’s food, you can’t really use cavities to smuggle it either.”
I had a little more luck with the Japanese community. Early one evening, I stopped at Tono Sushi in Woodley Park. As I looked at the menu, Ritsuko, a waitress, arrived to take my order.
“Do you have whale?” I asked. I repeated the word several times without getting the notion across before drawing my best Moby-Dick on a napkin. The request registered only when I penciled water shooting from the spout.
Tono does not serve whale, Ritsuko said, but she was excited that I was searching. She, too, enjoys eating whale, though she prefers it cooked, not raw. Still, if there is an underground whale stash in the local Japanese community, she doesn’t know about it.
After I finished my California roll, Ritsuko returned. She had asked the staff about the whale. “You should try a big city,” she said. “Maybe New York.”
I spent the next couple of days stumped before expanding my search. I figured if I could book a week in a Scottish castle on Craigslist, I could find contraband whale meat somewhere. Craigslist didn’t agree. Within minutes of posting a query, my listing was flagged and then deleted. Google couldn’t flag me, though, and I hopped on it with new determination.
My first search brought up Traffic drummer Jim Capaldi’s 1974 album Whale Meat Again. Then I found Exotic Meats USA, a San Antonio company that fills mail orders for gastro-oddities that include yak patties, kangaroo loin, and rattlesnake.
Alex, a customer service agent, answered my call. No, the company does not trade in whale, Alex said before suggesting I look for cruise ships, where it’s rumored you can eat whale once you’re a certain number of nautical miles off American shores.
Next I sent off an e-mail to Fisherman’s Express, an Alaskan seafood company that offers a whale stew recipe on its home page.
By the time the company got back to me, I had nearly given up. The e-mailed response offered no meat but a new lead. You cannot buy whale for personal consumption, wrote Lyn Jackson. “Perhaps,” she said, “you could contact a local Native American tribe for research.”