Eel-y Good -- Why Japan Loves Unagi

Unagi no Hi: Celebrating the Delectable Eel

The first time I tasted unagi (eel) prepared the proper way ­– slow-roasted over charcoal and basted with a sweetened soy glaze – I was sitting riverside in Fukuoka at an unagiya (unagi restaurant) on what felt like the hottest day of summer. Like so many specialty shops across Japan, this particular establishment proudly prepared its fish according to a well-guarded, centuries-old recipe.

An Unagi Bento Lunch Set -- Photo by Simone Chen

Unagi Day in Japan

While unagi is enjoyed all year long, the Japanese appetite for this traditional delicacy grows insatiable during the summer. Anyone who’s spent time in Japan during summer knows July and August are a hot and sticky affair. The Japanese believe you will find no better remedy for heat fatigue (natsubate) than consuming unagi. Boost your stamina! Increase your appetite! Replenish your strength! While these three commonly touted reasons may well have a basis in science, the best reason to eat Japanese freshwater eel is this -- it tastes simply delectable.

Unagi no Hi Sign -- Photo from Flickr cc by Ken OHYAMA

On one day every summer most Japanese will be dining on some version of unagi -- Doyo no Ushi no Hi. This means Day of the Ox, also nicknamed Unagi no Hi (or Unagi Day). This midsummer day is considered the hottest day of the year and, incidentally, when the body needs the biggest boost of energy. Because the day is set by the lunar calendar, the actual date varies year to year. This year, Unagi Day falls on July 30.

Unagi Origins and Preparation

My unagi arrived in an elegant tiered jubako lacquer box, with steamed rice, pickles and clear soup made from eel liver. Lifting the lid from the top tier revealed a beautiful filet, lightly crisped on top, with a light sheen from a brush of a sweet-savory glaze. With a few dashes of aromatic ground sansho pepper (every unagiya will have a shaker at the ready), my grilled eel was properly dressed and ready to eat.

Delicious Unagi in an Elegant Jubako Box -- Photo by Simone Chen

The origins of this dish can be traced back to the Edo period (1603-1868), which not only gave rise to foods like sushi and soba but also simple roasted unagi.

 Big Eels by Katsushika Hokusai -- Public Domain via Google Art

Back in the day, eels were plentiful in the rivers of Edo (present-day Tokyo). While nowadays, sushi, soba and unagi enjoy elevated status as sophisticated foods, they all started by way of humble beginnings. For example, sushi and eel – considered then as cheap food for the masses – were primarily sold as fast food from street vendors’ carts (think the very first food trucks). In the late Edo period, specialty unagiya started to pop up, preparing the fish in the way we know today, over charcoal and basted with sauce, called kabayaki.

Beyond kabayaki style, eel is enjoyed today in so many delectable ways. Listed below are some of the most popular unagi dishes. When you visit any unagiya, you can be sure to find these on the menu.

Common Menu Styles

Kabayaki: As explained above, the eel is boned and filleted, put on skewers and grilled over charcoal while being dipped in a thick, sweetened soy sauce several times throughout the grilling process.

Unaju/Unadon: Kabayaki is served over rice and presented in a lacquer bento box (unaju) or bowl (unadon), and eaten with a sprinkling of sansho pepper.

 Unadon or Unagi Over Rice -- Photo by Simone Chen

Umaki: Kabayaki eel inside a rolled egg omelet.

 Unagi Inside a Japanese Egg Roll -- Photo by Simone Chen

Kimoyaki: Skewer of grilled eel liver, prepared with either salt or a sweet soy sauce.

 Grilled Eel-liver on a Skewer -- Photo by Simone Chen

Kimosu: A clear soup with eel liver.
Shiroyaki: Charcoal-grilled without a sauce. The eel is served plain, with only wasabi or soy sauce.
Hone-senbei: Deep-fried eel bones that are crisp like chips and high in calcium.

One of the greatest things about unagi is that very little goes to waste. Most parts of the fish are cooked and enjoyed, not just for taste but also nutrition. Eel is a great source of protein, vitamins, healthy fat, collagen and omega fatty acids. What’s more, Japanese believe that organs like eel liver are more nutritious than the meat itself.

A Dying Tradition?

Classic Signage from an Eel Shop -- Photo from Flickr cc by Ray Larabie

In recent years, consumers have seen a rise in prices due to overfishing of eel. Dwindling supplies and a decline in patrons – due to the growing cost – have forced a number of long established unagiya to go out of business.

But many establishments are still in operation and you can still get a solid lunch set of high-quality eel (plus rice, pickles and soup) for less than ¥2,000. Some of my favorite unagi restaurants include Inageya and Yatsumeya Nishimura in Tokyo, Yoshizuka Unagiya in Fukuoka, and Unagi no Sueyoshi in Kagoshima.

So, with the hottest days of summer still to come, don’t fall prey to natsubate. Enjoy some unagi, the best antidote to summer’s sweltering heat.

Simone Chen