Saturday, August 23, 2008

Kujira Helper

Japan is one of the few countries in the world that does not take part in the international ban on whaling. Every year, through the auspices of the Japan Institute of Cetacean Research (日本鯨類研究所, Nippon Geirui Kenkyūsho), Japan harvests whales in what it terms "research" on the sustainability of whaling.  The results of this research can be found in grocery stores and restaurants throughout Japan. 

Whales, most famous for being the subject of a magnificent book and for spawning a subgenre of songs in the 1970s dedicated to their salvation, were historically a part - a small part - of the Japanese diet. They became a much bigger thing in the Land of the Rising Sun when American occupation forces were faced with a large, destitute and hungry population in much need of protein. Whales are big and got a lotta meat - an easy solution.  Japanese school kids' lunchboxes throughout the 50s regularly included a slab o' whale.

Recently the Ajimi team were walking through a shotengai in Asakusa where we came upon a restaurant specializing in research. A small and tasteful retail section opened up to the walking street proffering any number of cuts of whale meat and various flavoring agents, pickles, and packaged products to cover up... er... enhance the taste of these fat and protein filled behemoths.  And best of all we came across an instant curry manufactured specifically for making くじらカレ (kujira kare), or whale curry.

We at Ajimi are suckers for a good curry. And we're also suckers for the Japanese variation on this Indian import.  Japanese curry can be amazingly bad at any number of cheap "kare" joints that dot the urban landscapes of all Japanese cities. A pool of thin one-dimensional sauce, a potato, a piece of rubbery meat and some tired rice make for a quick, but particularly unsatisfying meal. But Japanese curry can also be great!  When prepared well, it's got a nice complexity of spices, with a mild burn, a lively and "fruity" edge and the Japanese secret - a nice dark roux to thicken it all up.  Served with fresh seasonal veggies and quality meat... well, it's a perfect comfort food that holds its own against other world curry variations. 

Curry, Japanese-style, hit the market in the late 50s, with easy-to-make instant variations made available to busy housewives and salarymen. Around this time interest in consuming whale was on the decline. Other, tastier and better foods were becoming more readily available as Japan boomed.  Whale never left though. There are a few restaurants that specialize in it and it shows up seasonally (perhaps when some research is being activated) in supermarkets. However, the Ajimi team, having come of age in the 70s still remember Graham Nash and David Crosby's To the Last Whale - and whether it's at a certain revulsion in remembrance of that song or if we're just being PC, when it comes to whale, we just say no. 

NV




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