White Whale Burger by Douglas Haddow
“As for me, I am tormented with an everlasting itch for things remote. I love to sail forbidden seas, and land on barbarous coasts.”
That’s Herman Melville, writing about what turns him on in his tome to obsession, Moby-Dick. I know this because I follow the Moby Dick Twitter account, which tweets Dick out in bite-sized 140-character portions. And every time I read one of these tweets, I’m reminded of the hunt for my very own white whale, how I eventually came to eat it, and how it left me feeling a hunger that has yet to be satisfied.
Picture this: It’s sometime around 2010. I’m in a very small bar that doubles as a book store down an alley of a side street in Tokyo’s famed and infamous Koenji neighbourhood. Famed for its weird rock venues, surplus of second-hand clothing stores, and various anarchist hangouts. Infamous as it’s the known to be best spot in a city of some 38 million souls where people go to disappear completely—Koenji is where you end up if you never want to be found again.
In the tiny bookstore bar’s even tinier kitchen, within its teeny-tiny sink, I catch a glimpse of a mug. Yes, a mug—a ceramic cylinder with a semi-circle handle. One of the most mundane objects found in common possession.
But there was something different about this mug. It spoke to me, whispering my name through a breath of adventure. Mystical isn’t the right word but this mug definitely held an aura of the esoteric. It read “Lucky Pierrot Hamburger, Hakodate” in a cotton candy font with a simple green drawing of a clown face on a white background.
We were drinking Nikka whiskey and talking about the rare edition racket. I asked Yamamoto-san, the resident bartender/book dealer as to the nature and origin of the mug, and was told that it came from a chain of hamburger joints that can only be found in Hakodate, a city located in the middle of the snowy Kameda peninsula, on the southern tip of Hokkaido.
Now this is where it would be appropriate to use the word mythical, as Lucky Pierrot is indeed the stuff of myth. Each of the burger chain’s 13 locations are lavishly decorated with themes like Eternal Christmas, Audrey Hepburn, and The Virgin Forest Paintings of Henri Rousseau, to name a few.
The menu is equally eccentric and includes customer favourites like the Chinese chicken and Genghis Khan burgers, as well as more challenging items such as the quadruple-decker Futoccho, which by my estimate contains no less than five layers of meat.
But for those who make the pilgrimage, these are but minor distractions from Lucky Pierrot’s piece de resistance: the Kujira-Miso. The world’s first and only fast-food burger with a patty made of whale meat. Specifically, deep-fried minke, smothered in miso sauce, on a toasted sesame
When I asked if the whale burger was any good I was met with a silence typically reserved for the observation of ancient purification rituals. Yes, it was good, my patron’s eyes said to me, it is beyond words… the greatest burger on this distant and lonely planet of ours.
So I packed a bag, jumped a train, and hurried my way to Hakodate. I wanted to know what unchartable truth tasted like. After many hours spent on local, sleeper, and bullet trains, I arrived the following morning, bleary-eyed and hangry.
The Kujira-miso is only available at one of Lucky Pierrot’s thirteen locations, and the theme of this location is whales. The walls are decorated with diagrams of whale anatomy, whale bones, harpoons, and various homages to Japan’s history of whaling.
For such a controversial meal, it was fulfilled without any pageantry and made to order in under five minutes. Such presentation made it seem entirely normal, which is actually rather strange. And to be honest, I expected more pomp and circumstance.
Physically, one approaches a whale burger just as you would any other burger. Regardless of the moral ambiguity inherent in eating whale meat, the prototypical bun-patty-bun interface remains intact. You simply unwrap it, grasp it with your bare hands and begin eating. For pairings, I personally recommend a chocolate milkshake and onion rings. And as long as you don’t think too hard about what you are eating, it goes down like any other burger.
But it’s hard not to think when in the presence of harpoons, and the mind naturally drifts towards the history of how this burger came into being.
As the literature on the Lucky Pierrot menu points out, from 1633 to 1853, Japan maintained a foreign policy in which, save for minor exceptions made for Dutch, Chinese, and Korean traders, no foreigners were allowed to enter the country and no Japanese were allowed to leave. This all ended when some Americans showed in Tokyo Bay with a fleet of gunboats, demanding that the Emperor open up his ports and begin a diplomatic relationship with the
At that time, the American whale oil industry had become so vast and profitable that it had obliterated whale stocks in the Atlantic and its operations had largely shifted into the Pacific. Sometimes wayward Yankee whalers would end up shipwrecked along the Northern Japanese coast, and it was the welfare of these whalers that provided the impetus for the American government to show up on the Emperor’s doorstep.
But I digress.
Was it the best burger I’ve ever had? Not even close. When foreigners describe the nature of whale meat in Japan, they often label it a “delicacy”. This was not my experience. It tasted kind of like beef, a little bit like chicken, and was a bit on the chewy side. And it was in the moment after I had polished off the Kujira-Miso that I realized that I had likely attributed to Yamamoto-san’s silence a profundity that did not exist. He probably had no idea what I was talking about, as my Japanese is mostly limited to casual greetings and the odd cuss word.
Mug in hand, I left Hakodate unfulfilled. I spent the train ride back to Tokyo reading up on the bizarre nature of whale meat in Japan, how Lucky Pierrot had partnered with the government and the Kujira-Miso essentially amounted to a form of culinary propaganda.
The years passed by, my clown mug cracked, and was eventually lost in a move, and no single dish has captured my imagination in quite the same way as the Kujira-Miso did.
If you frequent the east side or Chinatown, you may have noticed a new presence haunting our streets: It goes by the name of Golden Era Burger.
I had been hearing rumours of this transient, even ghost-like food truck for months. It had been described as sublime, “really, really good” and comparable to In-N-Out.
I started following the truck’s movements through its Instagram account, where the vendor leaves cryptic clues as to his ever-shifting location. But I was never in the right place at the right time. It was always somewhere off in the distance, and when I got close, it had retreated into the ether.
Friends were luckier. They told me about how the American cheese was melted to perfection. How it was “simple and on point”. How it was mega-juicy. And so on. But for me it remained elusive.
The other day I saw the simply branded yellow and white truck in person for the first time, as it drove down Main. I scrambled to check the Instagram, to see if it was heading anywhere, my stride became a jog, then a full blown run. I considered hopping in a cab and just ordering it to follow the fucker indefinitely. But once again, as soon as I had encountered Golden Era, it had disappeared completely. I think maybe it turned on Broadway, but I was at a loss.
More and more friends have successfully tracked it down and the positive reviews continue to pour in. “It’s amazing,” a friend told me yesterday. “You should really try it.”
For now, I’ve given up my search. And the Golden Era smashed burger with American cheese sizzles in my imagination, beyond words, until the day it doesn’t.