Over the next few weeks Drinking Japan will be running a series on eels. We have much to say about this subject and feel that putting it all in one blog entry may be too much to digest in the heat of the summer and early autumn. Summer heat, of course, is one reason for eating this wonderful creature, the other being the indescribably delicious taste of a delicacy that rivals that of the better-known and worshipful sushi. This series will take us through a number of terrains—gastronomic, geographic, and historical. It will address the fish and its preparation, as well as things associated with it; i.e., a spice that often accompanies it, a variety of pickle that complements it, and a pastry inspired by it. If we accomplish our objectives, you will not be squirming the next time you hear the word “eel” but hankering to wolf one down!
The Dish as It Is Realized in Japan
The most common way to consume eel in Japan is as Unagi no Kabayaki. (We will restrain ourselves here and not make any hippopotamus jokes.) Kabayaki is a method of preparation that is used for certain kinds of fish, eel, or unagi, being the fish most closely associated with it. Skewers are inserted into the eel, which is then placed on a grill over charcoal and turned frequently until done,…of course. Eel is a wonderfully oily fish—think “slippery as an eel”—which adds to its appeal, but there is a sweet sauce—tare—that contributes its share to the sensory experience.
Unagi is a good source of vitamins A and E and is believed to give stamina during the dog days of summer. In fact, there is an unagi day (it’s not a national holiday, but we believe it should be) called Doyō-no Ushi-no-Hi (土用の丑の日)! Furthermore, according to Calvin W. Schwabe—who, despite the title of his informative book, relishes the taste of eel—it “…contains about one-fifth more protein than T-bone steak and only one-fourth of its fat.”1
1Unmentionable Cuisine by Calvin W. Schwabe (The University Press of Virginia, 1979).