Part of the pleasure of visiting new places is learning about local customs and tasting homegrown foods. Who hasn’t at least wanted to try haggis in Scotland, say, or “cod cheeks” in Newfoundland? It’s a way of immersing yourself in all that an adventure in a new land has to offer.
But as visitors, how can we truly know if the foods that we’re told are being enjoyed by locals really are?
Recently, the Keflavik airport in Iceland had whale meat for sale. While ads portrayed the meat as local fare, it turns out that 35 to 40 percent of whale meat harvested by Icelandic whalers is eaten by tourists visiting the country—not Icelanders themselves.
While the whale meat is now being withdrawn from the airport store’s shelves, it makes us wonder: How can we be sure we’re “eating locally” while traveling?
Iceland and Norway are two countries that still authorize commercial whaling today, while Japan hunts whales for “scientific purposes”—although whale meat is sold for consumption. Iceland resumed commercial whaling in 2006 and now exports most of its whale meat to Japan, where, annually, almost 6,000 tons of minke, fin, sperm and other whale meat is consumed.
Historically, hundreds of Icelanders hunted and processed whales for their meat, bones and blubber. As recently as the 1970s, Icelandic children ate pan-fried whale steak as a regular staple. Whale flesh was soaked overnight in milk to mask the liver-like taste, it’s said, that results from exposing the meat to the air.
Whalers in Iceland are now attempting to build a tourism business that includes eating whale meat. Some whalers are offering tours, where participants can go out to sea on a whaling vessel, learn about harpooning and then enjoy a meal of whale meat and blubber back in port (a whale is not killed in front of tourists on such trips). This new type of tourism combines two trends noticed by some in Iceland: that travelers flock to take whale-watching excursions and then follow up such outings by going into local restaurants and ordering whale-meat meals.
Others in the Iceland tourism industry, however, worry that such excursions that mix the popularity of whale watching with the desire to eat locally could be hurting their businesses. Those who run ecotours and strive to provide current, authentic experiences for travelers say that such excursions don’t represent the truth about Icelanders today, as only a very small percentage of the nation’s people actually eat whale meat.
Of course, as outsiders and guests of the countries we visit, true explorers do not judge whether or not local customs, such as what people eat, are “acceptable” or not. Tasting local fare that you might not ever consider eating at home is part of the adventure of traveling.
It might be best, though, to make sure that the culinary adventures we do partake of are truly local customs rather than merely “tourist traditions.”
Here’s to your adventures, in whatever corner of the world you find them,