Village Has Whale of a Good TimeEver since the International Whaling Committee issued a worldwide ban on commercial whaling on 1986, eating boiled whale meat has become an exotic, almost illicit experience.
The ban has been a blow to the fishing village of Jangsaengpo in Ulsan, South Kyongsang province, which has a population of about 2,000. Jangsaengpo, a former tidal basin, is famous for whaling. Once it was a place where people from all over the country swarmed to enjoy whale dishes.
"It all disappeared," said a construction manager at Ulsan. "Scores of restaurants were reduced to five, whaling ships became tug boats for the Maritime Police Agency and many fishermen had to change their occupations."
But Jangsaengpo is trying to make a comeback. Ulsan Nam-gu － Jangsaengpo's administrative district － has hosted an annual Ulsan Whale Festival since 1995. Festival officials acknowledge the need for limited whaling that does not violate the ecosystem and at the same time activates the local economy.
About 20 kilometers east of Ulsan, a prehistoric petroglyph depicting some 300 drawings decorates a rock wall called Bangudae Amgakhwa. The petroglyph is a national treasure, but the most significant thing about it is that it shows whaling. The prehistoric petroglyph is best seen during the lunar months of March and April, at 3 p.m. to 4 p.m., when the sun shines directly onto the rockface.
The Ulsan Whale Festival (www.whalekorea.com) held each spring at the marine park in Jangsaengpo, offers many activities. Spectators can touch a whale skeleton or view artwork of whales at an exhibition hall. Festival visitors can win a prize by answering questions correctly in a quiz show, have their portrait drawn or watch a shaman practice exorcism.
The most interesting part at the festival is the food. Each of the surviving restaurants in Jangsaengpo that specializes in whale food has a separate booth at the festival. All the restaurants were in business long before commercial whaling ban began. The only restaurants to survive are the ones whose owners are natives of Jangsaengpo.
Four sisters manage one of the whale restaurants, Gorae Makjip (052-266-1585). The women inherited the restaurant from their mother who managed it for more than 50 years. The eldest daughter, Kwon Yeong-su said: "The restaurants in the festival are about the only ones left from what used to be a lively spot."
And how does she obtain the whale to prepare her dishes? "We are only allowed to use whales that are caught in a fishing net by accident." That does not mean, of course, that whale served in Jangsaengpo is illegally caught. Ms. Kwon said, "The Ministry of Maritime Affairs and Fisheries investigates whether the whales have been caught intentionally by the fishermen. Only the caught whales that are free from this inspection are auctioned. The price varies, but a 6-meter minke, or smaller gray whale, can go higher than 13 million won ($10,000)."
"Only whales that are caught accidently are legal," confirmed Yun Yeong-jo, an official of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Commerce. "Therefore, there is no whaling quota in Korea."
Beginning in about 1997, Koreans spotted whales more often and thus whales began to appear frequently in the media. This resulted in restaurants obtaining more whale meat. "This year, we get a whale in every two or three days, since they are caught in the fishing nets more frequently," Ms. Kwon said, "Last year, we used to get one a week."
Though there aren't any signs that the number of whale restaurants is increasing, Jangsaengpo is not the only place in Korea that serves whale. A number of restaurants in Seoul also have the meat on their menus. Ganggu Mathoe (02-319-3456) located near City Hall and Yeongduk Ure Restaurant (02-738-0755) at Jongno-gu are two.
The National Fisheries and Development Institute is a government think tank that conducts research on the ecosystem of waters of Korea. "The number of whales in the seas increased in the last three years, which is a natural thing since whaling has been banned for 15 years," said an institute researcher.
Does this mean the institute believes that the whaling ban ought to be lifted? "Not yet," said the researcher. "It would be too hasty to make a definite statement since the research is still insufficient. But Korea should be prepared for the resumption of commercial whaling." For the people of Jangsaengpo citizens that would be an answered prayer.
Each different part of the giant mammal has a distinctive taste and color. Additionally, each part can be boiled, put into a spicy Korean stew with soybean paste or red-hot chili sauce. Whale can also be enjoyed without Korean spices. It can be seasoned with sesame oil and vegetables, enjoyed as sashimi, or fried in oil. Raw whale meat can be also eaten with a little seasoning and mixed with pear. Whale has a stronger flavor than pork, and a whale's aftertaste lasts longer than, say, fish. People who are used to eating cooked organs of livestock generally enjoy whale.
Restaurants in Jangsaengpo mostly prepare dishes soon after a whale is caught. In the village, about 200 grams of boiled whale ranges from 15,000 to 20,000 won. A whale soup or stew can be purchased for 15,000 to 20,000 won and 200 grams of roasted whale goes for 25,000 won. The most expensive dish is the prized abdominal muscle of a whale. Two hundred grams of that costs 30,000 won, but it is in limited supply.
Whales have been an important part of peoples' lives in Jangsaengpo since prehistoric times. For the village － though not necessarily for the whales － the future appears to be brighter.
by Koh Han-sun