Saturday, July 27, 2019

Eating Whale - Meat, Blubber and Skin

Our visit to Iceland and Greenland provided a unique opportunity to try whale meat, blubber and skin. Today whale meat may only be available in Iceland, Norway, Japan, Greenland, the Faroe Islands and among the Inuit people of northern Alaska, and I understand it is virtually impossible to get in Japan. We found it available in restaurants in both countries.

We had two types of whale: minke and fin. Fin whale is the second largest species on earth, after the blue whale. It can grow as long as 89 feet and weigh up to 73 tons. It is now an endangered species with a global population estimate of 100,000 to 119,000. The International Whaling Commission ("IWC") has issued a moratorium on commercial hunting, but Iceland and Japan have resumed hunting despite the moratorium. In Greenland hunting is still allowed by the IWC under an Aboriginal Subsistence Whaling provision.
This shows the proportionate size of a human compared to a fin whale. From Wikipedia. 
A fin whale on a Faroe Island stamp. 
Minke whale are substantially smaller, about 30 feet long and 5 tons. The IUCN Red List has it as a species of Least Concern. A general moratorium on whale hunting was put in place in 1986, presumably by the IWC. Norway resumed commercial hunting in 1993, Iceland in 2006 and Japan in July 2019. I believe Greenland continued hunting under the Aboriginal Subsistence Whaling provision. 
A human compared to a minke whale. From Wikipedia. 
In Reykjavik, at Tapas Barinn, I had minke whale with sweet mashed potatoes. I get the impression from a little bit of reading that minke whale tastes better than fin whale, perhaps because the minke is so much smaller in size. This was my favorite of all the whale I tasted. It tasted like beef, was quite moist and went perfectly with the sweet potatoes. 
Minke whale at Tapas Barinn.
The next evening at Grill Markadurrin in Reykjavik, I had an appetizer of grilled minke whale, cooked lightly on each side for a few seconds, and served with wasabe and soy vinaigrette. It was very rare inside, kind of like seared ahi which is so popular now. It also was delicious, but I give my nod to the whale from the night before. 

Grilled minke whale with two slices laying flat on the grill. 
Our guide in Iceland learned that I love to try unusual foods, so he took us to a fish store in Reykjavik called Fikikongurinn. There they had sur hvalur, which is whale blubber cured in sour milk. The fishmonger tried explaining to me how it was made, in halting English. I wrote down that it was fin whale fat boiled and cured in lactic acid (whey). I find a recipe for pickled whale blubber which directs you to wash the whale blubber under cold water, boil it until firm, remove it from the cooking liquid and keep it in cool water for one or two days, cut it into smaller pieces and dip it into strong whey, then it is ready to eat in four to six weeks. I ordered a piece to take with me which he put into a small tin and took it back to the hotel. It was the consistency of flan and did not have much taste, just a bit sour.
Pickled whale blubber.
The piece I purchased and took to the hotel. I only ate a fraction of it. 
Our first afternoon in Ilulissat, Greenland, at the Hotel Icefiord, we had lunch and each of us was given platter of smoked meat, that included muskox, fin whale, cod and halibut. The fin whale was slightly fishy, but otherwise had a beef-like taste and was still quite tender. However, as you would expect, it did not hold a candle to the whale we had at the two Reykjavik restaurants. 
Smoked fin whale at Hotel Icefiord, along with some mayo, hazelnuts and pickled beet. 
At Restaurant Ulo in the Hotel Arctic in Ilulissat I ordered an appetizer of mattak, and quickly found myself wondering why anyone would eat it. It is an Inuit dish of raw whale skin and blubber, sliced into sections that look like legos to make it less rubbery. However, the skin is like chewing on plastic and it never breaks down. The rock salt and soy sauce that accompanied it seemed irrelevant as it quickly dissolved while my mandibles chewed and chewed without making much headway. This ranks up there with the worst food I've eaten, not because it tastes bad, it is virtually tasteless, but it is so hard to eat that it is unpleasant. The redeeming features for the Inuit is that the skin contains vitamin C in a land where that is hard to come by. 
Mattak, whale skin and blubber.
After eating mattak at Restaurant Ulu, I have to give the genius chef at Restaurant Mammartut in Ilulissat some props. He served mattak under the name of "mattaq" and added "like crackling" on the menu. It also was fin whale skin and blubber, but he left just a small thin strip of the skin, which was what was so difficult to chew. He sliced it very thin and then apparently fried it in boiling oil and created a crisp piece of mostly whale fat. It was like eating a potato chip, but not quite as crisp and a little more thick. With a little bit of salt it would have been terrific. As it was, it was still miles ahead of the raw mattak and the pickled whale blubber. The thin rind of skin was not even noticeable. 
Mattaq at Restaurant Mammartut.
Finally, we also had smoked fin whale at Restaurant Mammartut which was very similar to the smoked whale we had at Hotel Icefiord. In fact, Hotel Icefiord has a smoker in front of the hotel which smokes meat and I would not be surprised if Restaurant Mammartut procured it from there. 
Smoked fin whale.
I never imagined I would be able to get such a broad sampling of whale and I'm not sure how long that window will be open with global warming and the impacts it is making on arctic species. 


  1. In Japan there was whale but I didn't try any. Just looked like fat to me.

  2. It's interesting to eat whale, but even more interesting to think of fishermen catching it. I'd like to see that with my own eyes. And how did they used to do it with only spears? It seems impossible.

  3. I would love the opportunity to try everything you tried for myself. I hear the fat is the best, very nutritious.