Sunday, November 22, 2009

A whale of a time- thanks for the memory

Recently, in thinking about my most confronting culinary experiences, a memory that I had carefully hidden away to protect my moral fiber came popping to the surface.

The year was 2004. The place was a huge drinking party in downtown Tomiai- a semi rural town on the outskirts of Kumamoto in Kyushu, Japan.

Myself and one other Gaijin (westerner / foreigner) were the guests of honour and every tray of brilliant food at that feast came directly our way, before being passed to the rest of the raucously drinking group at the banquet table.

There was a lot of noise; cheers every time we declared that a dish was 'oishi desne' (delicious), much clapping and shouting whenever we managed to collect a particularly delicate morsel with our chopsticks (Westerners are notoriously not so good at these things) and rousing choruses of 'Kampai' as hot sake was delivered to the table.

The smoked unagi (eel) went down a treat to the great surprise of many at the table and there was endless fascination with our apparent enjoyment of basashi (horse-meat sashimi).

We were on a roll and the party was in full swing.

Then a small dish of jewel red meat made its way to my place in the next round of culinary roulette. I was intrigued by it's marbled appearance and at this stage was still enjoying the game of 'how will the westerners eat this.' So far all the food was delicious and the unexpected array of dishes was like hearing all your favourite songs played randomly back-to-back at a party- you uttering 'oh I LOVE this song' at every new tune.

I asked my travel partner (who spoke some little Japanese) what this next delight was. He in turn asked his closest companion. Listening to her answer, he nodded, went pale and then whispered to me those dreaded words: 'it's whale'. And I immediately went cold as I eyed the small plate.

From memory this dish was particularly tiny, with only about five strips of the dark pink meat fanned neatly upon it. It was one of those dishes that was a rare delicacy for the guests at the table and -after myself and my companion had taken our obligatory pieces- there would be only three others privileged enough to have a taste. That's no small compliment to us awkward dinner guests.

The thin strips gleamed dully up at me, sliced so finely that you could almost see the pattern on the plate below. My hesitation was palpable and as I wavered the party atmosphere around me began to hush. I leaned in to my companion and whispered 'I can't eat it- it's whale, I just can't- it's a problem for me.'

By now there was a definite dimming of noise as the guests sensed that something was amiss, and inquiring eyes began to turn our way. I started to sweat and I swear the music just faded away. Our heads still together, my companion hissed back 'Looks like it'll be more of a problem if we don't' eat it'. He briefly conferred with his translator, her quiet manner helpfully more muted again so that no one could hear what was going on. Then came the mumbled decider; 'if you don't eat it they'll want to know why and it's been ordered specially for us...'

As an ungainly Westerner blundering through the polite and delicate details of Japan, I decided I had already unintentionally offended enough strangers on my five-week trip- I didn't need to embarrass our generous hosts as well.

I nodded and smiled, trying to look pleased and grateful, then sitting up very straight, composing my chopsticks and with great poise, I took a piece of the dewy meat and raised it to my mouth. All eyes were on me as I ate, so I added in some convincing groans of pleasure to appease my hosts and assure them that the honour 'was all mine'.

Then, I swallowed the biggest lump of guilt, shame and horror ever presented to me on a plate. I decided that I was probably full after this and begged off before anymore tasty surprises arrived.

Later that night my partner and I discussed the whale offering beyond the moral and ethical doubts we had about eating it. What we wanted to discuss was how it tasted. To our sad and common disappointment we realised that not only had we chosen to over-step our personal ethical boundaries in the interests of avoiding embarrassment (to our hosts and ourselves), but that due to the tiny offering of the prized flesh, neither of us could really tell what it tasted like beyond being meaty.

Perhaps our senses had been dulled by the sake and party spirit. Perhaps our palates had been overwhelmed by the vast array of unusual flavours and sensations on offer. I think it more likely that I subconsciously blocked it out.

That was my first and last experience of whale- I'm sorry that I can't tell you exactly what it tasted like (except to say that it's remarkably similar to guilt with a side order of regret), but I could have happily lived my life never given the opportunity to find out.

Note: image borrowed from:

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