What is unagi?
Source of energy for the Japanese, a nutritional food to sustain stamina.
Unagi is found around the globe, and 18 different types of unagi have been identified to date. Two types are found in Japan, namely, Nihon unagi (Anguilla japonica) and Oounagi (Anguilla marmorata).
Fully grown unagi can be as long as 1 meter in length. Unagi has a slender cylindrical body with small eyes, and its dorsal fin stretches out to the tail. It is characterized by the slimy mucous membrane that covers the body surface. Unagi lives in fresh water and is found in middle to lower reaches of river, mouths of rivers or lakes. Although almost everyone knows what unagi is, not much is known about its ecology, and until recently, it was not even known in which ocean area unagi lays eggs and where these eggs hatch.
Although unagi has been a popular food in Japan, nowadays, it is becoming extremely difficult to obtain supplies of wild unagi, and more and more cultured or imported unagi is put on market.
Culturing technique has been improving each year. Since we can culture unagi under well-controlled and stable environment, we have been able to procure stable supply of unagi that meets certain quality standard.
Wild unagi is extremely rare, and if you wish to eat it, you must really be looking for it. Since unagi likes to hide in a small hole, a fishing method called “tube fishing” is used. The fishing tube is designed so that once a unagi enters, it cannot escape from it. Fishermen will put feeds in the tubes and leave them in the rivers.
Wild and cultured unagi
In general, wild unagi has less fat than cultured unagi and therefore, has lighter flavor. Its body fat amount fluctuates depending on the season and the body size, and it has tender textured meat. Unlike cultured unagi, wild unagi has yellowish color on the stomach.
With the advancement in culturing technique and thanks to the well-managed feeds and water quality, unagi with standardized quality suitable for eating are being supplied to the market.
Wild unagi is available between early May and late November. Since there is a big shortage in wild unagi supply, many of the restaurants can only offer limited portions per day, and at high prices.
Different ways to enjoy unagi
Grilling is the most authentic way to enjoy unagi in Japan.
To prepare a unagi, it is cut open, and its head and bones are removed. Then, the meat is skewered and broiled. Then, it is slowly grilled again on charcoal while basting it with kabayaki sauce, of which recipe is a secret of each shop or restaurant.
In western Japan, unagi is not broiled first. After skewering, unagi is grilled directly while basting it with kabayaki sauce.
Grilled without basting with kabayaki sauce.Served with wasabi or soy sauce on the side.
3. Unajyu (unadon)
Grilled unagi on rice.
If it is served in a lacquered bento box (jyubako), it is called “unajyu.”
If it is served in a donburi bowl, it is called “unadon.”
Kabayaki sauce is poured over rice, and most people would sprinkle Japanese pepper called “sansho,” which is a powdered condiment.
Sansho can warm up your digestive tracts and promote better digestion. Its flavor can mask the greasy taste or the fishy smell of unagi. Since it is very spicy, be careful not to sprinkle too much.
4. Kimosui (clear liver soup)
Unagi liver is served as the main ingredient in the clear soup. Unagi liver is highly nutritional and contains a high amount of nutrients good for sustaining stamina or recovering from fatigue. Kimosui is often served with unadon or unajyu.
History of grilled unagi dates back to 1,000 years ago.
Grilled unagi (kabayaki) was invented in Edo (former name of Tokyo), and has been an important part of Japanese food culture.
During the Edo period (1603-1868), unagi was eaten by physical laborers to gain enough nutrition to sustain stamina during the hot summer season. In fact, unagi is rich in vitamin As and Bs and can prevent exhaustion or decrease of appetite due to summer heat. It has been customary since the Edo period to eat unagi on the day of the ox in midsummer to survive through the hot summer, and this custom is still maintained today.
On the day of the ox, unagi is sold not only at specialty shops but also at local supermarkets and convenience stores as well as bento shops. People eat unagi all over Japan on this day.
There are two major ways to dress, grill or cook unagi, namely, the Kanto (Eastern Japan) style that is also called the Edomae style and the Kansai (Western Japan) style.
1. Kanto style (Edomae style)
Unagi is cut open from the backside to remove the spine and internal organs. It is grilled first without seasoning, then broiled and grilled again with kabayaki sauce.
It is said that in Edo, unagi was cut from the backside because samurai warriors found it inauspicious to cut open the stomach as it could be associated with seppuku.
2. Kansai style
Unagi is cut open from the stomach side to remove the backbone and internal organs. Then, it is grilled with thick, sweet kabayaki sauce.
It is said that unagi is cut from the stomach side because Osaka is a merchant town and since merchants “cut open their stomach” (in Japanese, it means to be completely frank) to discuss their business.
These regional differences are interesting, but cutting knife also differs depending on how the unagi is dressed. It may be interesting to check out such regional difference.
Unagi eating culture shows regional features.
Different regions have different ways to dress and eat unagi, and also use different tools and sauce to cook. Let us introduce the regional features of the areas known for tasty unagi in Japan.
1. Kabayaki（Tokyo and Shizuoka）
In Tokyo (Edo) , unagi is cut open from the backside and broiled. Then, it is skewered and grilled without seasoning. Cooks would hold the edge of the skewers and turn them over quickly. Then, they dip the skewered unagi in the kabayaki sauce and slowly grill them again until they are perfectly cooked. Edomae style kabayaki sauce is thick. Each restaurant has a secret recipe for their sauce, and by continuing to add more sauce as they use it, the flavor becomes deeper and mellower. For these specialty restaurants, sauce is their lifeline. It is transmitted from generation to generation, preserved with utmost care and used today and by the future generations.
2. Seiromushi (Fukuoka prefecture)
Local dish from Yanagawa in Fukuoka prefecture. Cooked rice is sprinkled with kabayaki sauce and is topped with flavorful grilled unagi. Then, it is steamed again in a bamboo steamer and garnished with julienned thin omlet. Unlike unajyu, the rice is seasoned with the strong taste of kabayaki sauce and flavor of unagi, creating a heavenly harmony. Therefore, just the rice itself has a rich flavor to satisfy your hunger. Unagi restaurants that serve “seiromushi” gather along the Yanagawa river, and the entire area smells like the sweet kabayaki sauce throughout the year, stimulating the appetite of tourists who pass by as they travel downstream on a boat.
3. Unamusu (Shiga prefecture)
Unamusu is a rice ball made by mixing omi rice, Kujyo negi (green onion), and tender unagi meat grilled on Kishu binchotan charcoal produced locally. The mellow flavor of the sauce from the freshly grilled rice ball stimulates appetite. It is crispy on the outside and soft in the inside. The combination of different texture and the rich flavor of the kabayaki sauce entice us to reach out for one. It is delicious enough to eat directly, but making a “unagi chazuke” by putting it in a bowl, top it with wasabi or thinly sliced dried seaweed to your taste and pouring hot green tea or clear soup will take you to another dimension of culinary pleasure.
4. Hitsumabushi (Aichi prefecture)
Unagi that has been grilled without pre-broiling is cut into small pieces and mixed with rice in a small “ohitsu” (a wooden container with a lid to keep freshly cooked rice moist). It is generally said that “histumabushi” was originally made to feed restaurant workers using broken pieces of unagi. When eating hitsumabushi, the first serving should be enjoyed as a simple unagi bowl. Second serving is topped with condiments (green onions, finely cut dried seaweed, wasabi, etc.). The third bowl is enjoyed as “ochazuke” by topping it with condiments and pouring hot green tea or clear soup. The rest of the rice in the container may be enjoyed anyway you like. Hitsumabushi that can provide various ways to enjoy unagi is served all over Japan now.
5. Unagi Pie (Shizuoka prefecture)
Unagi Pie produced by Shunkado confectionary company in Hamamatsu city is a famous local sweet that has been popular since its first launch in 1961. Carefully selected ingredients including fresh butter, is blended with unagi extract and garlic to make this flavorful pie. Trained workers layer thin pie crusts to create crispy texture that entice us to want to eat more. The amount of vitamin A contained in 7 pieces of Unagi Pie corresponds to 100g of grilled unagi and is effective to regain energy, prevent fatigue in the summer, and to maintain a good vision. Its catch phrase, “Night confection” was named to wish that families can enjoy quality evening time as they share delicious Unagi Pie.
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- In the case of shirayaki, the unglazed eels are eaten with wasabi and soy sauce, or salt, wihle kabayaki grilled eels are eaten with powdered Japanese pepper.
- There are also eels that are grilled on skewers like yakitori. With a direct flame on the eel, it enhances the smoky flavor on the surface.