The Eel Abroad, Part 1

This is the sixth entry in our series on eel. Here, we leave Japan briefly and look at how eel is and was consumed overseas.

Many Japanese believe that eel is not eaten overseas. Nothing could be further from the truth. Calvin W. Schwabe (see the first entry in this series) lists a number of recipes from various countries, including Smoked Eel Salad (Germany), Baked Eel (Samoa), Deviled Eel (France), Eel with Garlic and Pepper (Spain), Eel Sandwich (Norway), Eel with Paprika in Cream (Hungary), and Spitchcocked Eel (England), to name but a few.

As a matter of fact, eel was quite a popular dish in medieval Europe, which, contrary to what some may believe, was not a gastronomic wasteland peopled by middle-aged drudges. Melitta Weiss Adamson makes this abundantly clear in her wonderful book Food in Medieval Times1. As a matter of fact, if one were lucky enough to get an invite to one of the more spectacular shindigs, a slice of pie might have brought forth those “four-and-twenty blackbirds” of nursery rhyme fame. Supping and spectacles were not uncommon at some of the upscale banquets of that period. Professor Adamson was especially helpful to this writer when he was preparing the current entry, answering many of his questions, directing him to useful websites, and providing concrete information on a medieval recipe he sought—Eel Reversed.

Eel Reversed can be seen as a variation on the theme of Unagi no Kabayaki.  Like the Japanese dish, the fish is roasted on a spit and basted with a syrup. However, in this case, the skin of one eel is encased in the meat of a large skinned eel. The inner skin is seasoned with “grains of paradise and wine or verjuice, and a little saffron and salt.”2 When the encasement has been completed, the creation is pierced with cloves, pieces of ginger, and pine nuts, after which the skin from the flayed eel is reunited with its body in a slipping-over maneuver.

1Food in Medieval Times by Melitta Weiss Adamson (Greenwood Press, 2004).

2Culinary Recipes of Medieval England, Constance Hieatt (translator) (Prospect Books, 2013).

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