Known to be abundant in protein, calcium, and vitamins A, B1, B2, D and E, Unagi (Anguilla japonica freshwater eel) has been highly sought after since the Edo period. The Japanese believe that Unagi is best eaten during summer to restore one’s energy. Hence, it is no surprise that 土用の丑の日 (Doyou no Ushi no Hi - a day dedicated to eating eel) coincides with the hottest day in summer.
Courtesy of Inageya
Unagi restaurants often play on the first character of the Japanese word for Unagi, う, for the logos and banners. With some imagination, it's not hard to see that う resembles the slender and flexible body of an eel.
For a country that loves eating their sea produce raw, one might notice that Unagi is never on the sashimi menu. This is because raw Unagi has Ichthyotoxin, a toxin which denatures when exposed to heat. The same applies for Anago (sea eel).
The cooking technique differs from region to region. (What’s Japanese food without regional differences? Good example in article next month on Okonomiyaki).
In Kanto (eastern Japan including Tokyo), the eel is grilled, steamed to remove excess fat, and grilled again.
In Kansai (Kyoto, Osaka and further west), there is no steaming process - resulting in a crispier and chewier Unagi. The preparation of Unagi involves grilling the eel whilst basting the eel with sweet sauce made from mixing soya sauce, mirin and sugar. Unagi die-hard fans often go for Unagi Shiroyaki 白焼き, where the eel is grilled without any sauces.
Common items that one might find in specialised Unagi restaurants (known as Unagi-ya's):
Kabayaki 蒲焼き – char-broiled eel fillet where the eel is split down the back, butterflied, cut into square
fillets, skewered and dipped into sweet soy-based sauce before being char-broiled.
Unagi-don 鰻丼, or Una-ju うな重 – the most popular order, which is Kabayaki on a bowl of rice.
Shio-yaki 塩焼き – eel fillet grilled with salt, without sauce.
Kimosui 肝吸い - clear soup made from Dashi stock, served with boiled eel liver.
Often accompanies Una-don and Una-ju.
Karakuri からくり– the entire eel (from head to tail), entwined around the skewer and char-broiled in soy-
Kimo きも – nutritious vitamin-A laden char-broiled eel liver, with a tinge of bitterness.
Hire ひれ – char-broiled fins of the eel.
Kashira かしら – char-broiled head of the eel.
A condiment often found on the tables of Unagi-ya's is Sansho pepper 山椒, also known as Zanthoxylum piperitum. Despite its appearance looking like a pepper, it is not pepper per se, but rather a member of the citrus family. It had an earthy and tangy taste, with a hint of lemon. In some places, it is placed in a wooden receptacle shaped like a gourd.
Courtesy of Gifu
Unfortunately, over the years the eel population has been progressively dwindling, resulting in rising prises. From the era when Unagi was an affordable everyday meal, it is now becoming more of an occasional splurge.