You might be surprised to find out that unagi (freshwater eels) have been prized as a healthy and luxurious food in Japan for hundreds of years. This article will explore the culture behind unagi, introduce the delicious ways that it is prepared, and offer suggestions for some fantastic restaurants where it can be enjoyed in Tokyo.
What Is Unagi? Why Should Everyone Try It When They Visit Japan?
As an American, the first thing that used to come to mind when I heard the word "eel" was the creepy pet eels kept by Ursula, the villain of the Disney movie The Little Mermaid. After living in Japan for a couple years, however, I now associate the word eel with a delicious and slightly luxurious meal. Unagi (pronounced ooh-nah-ghee) is rich, fatty, and absolutely delicious when grilled over charcoal or cooked in a variety of other ways. In this article, I would like to introduce you to the delicious world of unagi cuisine in Japan, talk about some of the ways that it is prepared and eaten, and suggest a few of the best restaurants in Tokyo to try the delicacy for yourself.
What Is the Difference Between Anago and Unagi?
Other than unagi, you're likely to come across another type of eel called "anago" while in Japan. Whereas unagi spawn in the ocean and but spend most of their lives in a river, anago are purely saltwater-dwelling creatures. The differences don’t end with the animals' habitats, however, and there’s a reason that the price of unagi is generally around three times that of anago. First, while anago are fairly lean and have a lower fat content, unagi are loaded with delicious fat which makes the meat juicy and soft even after grilling. If you enjoy other fatty fish such as tuna or mackerel, you will probably love unagi as well. In addition to a higher fat content, unagi also has an overall higher nutrient content than anago, including vitamins A, B1, B2, D, E, and omega-3 fatty acids. That’s not to say that anago is low in nutrients - far from it - but that unagi is a particularly nutrient-rich fish that has long been thought of as a kind of superfood.
Why Unagi Is Recognized as a Summer Food in Japan
Unagi are said to be the most delicious in late autumn, when the eels begin to put on extra fat in preparation for spawning. However, unagi is thought of as a summer food in Japan. There are a couple of theories that exist to explain this. One is that people in Japan have a long tradition of eating foods that start with an "ooh" sound to combat the heat of the summer. Foods thought to be beneficial include energy-packed udon (thick noodles), appetite-stimulating umeboshi (pickled plums), water-filled gourds such as cucumber and melons, and, of course, nutrient-rich unagi.
Another reason that unagi is thought of as a summertime food has to do with a special day each summer called "Doyo no Ushi no Hi" that people in Japan know as "the day you eat unagi." The reason that people now associate this day with eating unagi seems to trace back to a marketing campaign from hundreds of years ago during the Edo Period (1603 - 1868), when unagi restaurants apparently used to struggle with business during the summertime. The successful campaign encouraged people to eat unagi on "Doyo no Ushi no Hi" (the day of the ox during the period before the changing of the seasons) and created a tradition that has carried on to the present day.
Whether or not unagi really gives you extra energy or helps you get through the summer heat is questionable, and I personally think it is a delicious meal to enjoy anytime of the year. In any case, unagi has a long tradition of being eaten as a stamina-increasing food in the summertime and is prized to this day as a luxury meal. It’s not uncommon to find unagi restaurants that have been in business for hundreds of years with nearly unchanged recipes, making unagi one of those foods that feels like a cultural experience as you eat it. It’s more than just a delicious meal; it’s a look into history and it gives you a chance to try a food whose form hasn’t changed in hundreds of years.
Traditional Unagi Dishes That You’ve Got to Try
Unagi is prepared in a variety of ways, each of which has its own charm. If you only have enough meals in Japan to try unagi once, I would recommend going for kabayaki, as it is the most classic and beloved unagi dish. If you have more meals to spare, though, try as many as you can!
Kabayaki is the most common way that unagi is prepared. A sweet "tare" sauce made from soy sauce and mirin (sweet cooking sake) is brushed over the unagi as it grills over charcoal. The sweetness of the tare mixed with the rich fattiness of the unagi is a match made in heaven. Unagi kabayaki is often served over rice. If served in a square lacquerware bowl called a "jubako," the dish is called "unaju" (unagi + jubako). If served in a deep round bowl (called a "donburi" in Japanese), the dish is called "unadon" (unagi + donburi). Unaju typically contains more unagi and is therefore more expensive than unadon, but the flavors are exactly the same. Many people like to sprinkle Japanese sansho pepper on the dish, adding a tingling spicy note that balances out the other flavors very nicely.
Shirayaki, very simply, is kabayaki minus the tare. It is a classic way to prepare unagi by simply grilling it over charcoal. This leaves the natural umami of the eel itself to be enjoyed without any distraction. Shirayaki can be eaten as-is or lightly seasoned with salt, wasabi, or other dressing. If you’re curious to experience the pure, natural flavor of unagi, this is the dish for you.
If you ask any Japanese person to name a food from Nagoya, hitsumabushi is likely to be one of their first answers. If you’re traveling to Aichi Prefecture, this is one of the local dishes that you can’t miss. Hitsumabushi consists of a bowl of rice topped with unagi kabayaki that has been chopped into small pieces. Though it sounds simple, it has a special way that it is to be eaten.
First, the rice and unagi should be tried as-is, without adding any other seasonings. Second, a portion of unagi and rice should be mixed and eaten with green onions, nori (seaweed), and wasabi. Third, tea or dashi (broth) should be added to a portion of rice and unagi to make what’s called "chazuke." Lastly, the final portion should be eaten however you like. I remember being a bit confused when figuring out how to eat hitsumabushi for the first time, and was grateful that the restaurant had a multilingual guide. If you're ever feeling lost when eating a dish like this, don't hesitate to ask for help from the restaurant staff!
Unagi is a popular sushi topping that you might have seen before. The unagi is usually grilled or seared with a torch and brushed with a tare very similar to that used on kabayaki (this means you don’t need to add any extra soy sauce before eating it). The price of unagi sushi is usually a little bit more expensive (if you’re eating sushi at a place where you order by the piece), but it’s one of my favorites and I highly recommend ordering it. It’s almost like getting a single, tasty bite of unaju, and is also great for those who aren't fond of raw fish.
Other Ways That Unagi is Prepared
Besides the more common unagi-based dishes above, there are a few other ways that you may see unagi prepared that should definitely be tried if you have a chance. One such dish is "kimoyaki," which is a grilled skewer of unagi liver, coated once again with a sweet tare sauce. The taste is a bit bitter, but delicious when paired with a cold drink. Look for this dish at certain izakaya (Japanese pubs).
Another item that you won’t see on too many menus, but is definitely worth trying if you get the chance, is called "umaki." Umaki is a tamagoyaki (rolled egg omelet) with unagi in the middle. Tamagoyaki is already very tasty, but adding unagi and a sweet tare sauce takes it to another level of deliciousness. I find that the unagi in umaki seems to somehow be even more tender than in other unagi dishes. If you see this on the menu, I highly recommend ordering it!
An item that you probably won't see a la carte is called "kimosui," which is a soup made from unagi livers that is sometimes served with unaju at unagi restaurants. The soup is quite light and usually includes mitsuba (a refreshing Japanese herb), making it the perfect counterbalance to the fatty richness of grilled unagi. Don't miss a chance to get a meal set that includes kimosui when dining at an unagi restaurant!
To learn all the fine details on how unagi is prepared from a master chef, check out this video:https://youtu.be/IfhuYqYIZpE
5 Recommended Unagi Restaurants in Tokyo
If you’re wondering where to go to try some fantastic unagi in Tokyo, take a look at the five restaurants listed below. Each has a certain specialty, but all serve outstanding unagi that is worth eating.
Classic, Delicious Unaju: Unagi Fugu Kaiseki Imai
Unagi Fugu Kaiseki Imai is a restaurant in Asakusabashi that specializes in unaju. The restaurant sources their ingredients from wherever the freshest ingredients of the season are available, getting vegetables from Nagano and Niigata, fish from Aomori, and unagi from prefectures around Japan. The attention given to the ingredients makes for fantastic quality that keeps locals coming back for more. The outstanding [Deluxe Unaju] can be had here for just under 3,000 JPY.
Unagi Fugu Kaiseki Imai
: [Weekdays, Saturday, Day before National Holidays] Lunch 11:30 am - 2:00 pm (last order 1:30 pm), Dinner 5:00 pm - 11:00 pm (last order 10:00 pm)Closed
: Sunday, National HolidaysAverage price
: [Dinner] 5,000 JPY / [Lunch] 950 JPYAccess
: 3 minutes on foot from Kuramae Station (233 meters).Address
: 4-23-1, Kuramae, Taito-ku, Tokyo MapMore Details Reservation
Outstanding Kabayaki, Kimoyaki, and Umaki: Hashimoto
Hashimoto opened in 1835 and is now run by the 6th generation chef. Located right next to the Kanda River in an old part of Tokyo, this restaurant specializes in all things unagi. In addition to an outstanding unaju, you can also try kimoyaki (listed as [Grilled Eel Innards] for 550 JPY) and [Umaki] for 1,700 JPY, knocking off multiple unagi dishes in one meal. The tare used for the kabayaki here is particularly good, and the chef chooses extra-large unagi so that extra tare can be added without overpowering the flavor of the eel.
: [Monday-Wednesday, Friday-Sunday, National Holidays, Day before National Holidays] Lunch 11:30 am - 2:00 pm (L.O. 2:00 pm), Dinner 4:30 pm - 8:00 pm (L.O. 7:30 pm)Closed
: ThursdayAverage price
: [Dinner] 4,000 JPY / [Lunch] 4,000 JPYAccess
: Use Exit 4. Turn right and walk to the direction of Ishikiribashi bridge after passing Ishikiribashi crossroad (Lawson). Cross Ishikiribashi bridge, then it is the 2nd shop along with the river. Address
: 2-5-7, Suido, Bunkyo-ku, Tokyo MapMore Details Reservation
Ninja-Style Unadon: Kawaei
Kawaei has a special unadon dish that they call the [Shinobi Don (Extra Special)] for 4,500 JPY, which features a very large bowl with one piece of unagi on top and another piece buried under the rice (like a ninja hiding, hence the name "Shinobi"). The restaurant has been open for more than 70 years and is quite popular among locals. If you’re looking for an excellent unadon in Tokyo, Kawaei is a great choice.
: [Monday, Tuesday, Thursday-Sunday, National Holidays, the Day Before National Holidays] Lunch: 11:30 am - (L.O. 2:00 pm), Dinner: 6:00 pm - (L.O. 9:30 pm)Closed
: WednesdayAverage price
: [Dinner] 5,000 JPY / [Lunch] 2,500 JPYAccess
: 4 minutes walk from the East Exit of Akabane Station on JR Lines.Address
: 1-19-16, Akabane, Kita-ku, Tokyo MapMore Details Reservation
Beautiful Unagi Set Meals: Unagi Komagata Maekawa Solamachi Branch
Unagi Komagata Maekawa is a long-established unagi restaurant with more than 200 years of history. The restaurant’s Solamachi branch is located inside Tokyo Solamachi, a shopping and entertainment center at the base of the Tokyo Skytree. The restaurant serves classic unaju in beautiful set meals that include various side dishes, soup, and sashimi. Treat yourself to the [Solamachi Course] for 7,560 JPY for an unforgettable unagi meal.
Unagi Komagata Maekawa Soramachi Branch
: 11:00 am - 11:00 pm (L.O. 10:00 pm)Closed
: NoneAverage price
: [Dinner] 4,500 JPYAccess
: 1 minute walk from Exit B3 of Oshiage [Skytree-mae] Station on any Lines. Located in Soramachi Dining on the 7th floor of Tokyo Soramachi Bldg.Address
: 7F, Skytree Town Soramachi, 1-1-2, Oshiage, Sumida-ku, Tokyo MapMore Details Reservation
Authentic Hitsumabushi With a Gorgeous View: Hitsumabushi Nagoya Bincho Marronnier Gate Ginza 1 Location
Hitsumabushi Nagoya Bincho Marronnier Gate Ginza 1 Location specializes in authentic, Nagoya-style hitsumabushi. Located in Tokyo’s fancy Ginza neighborhood, this restaurant offers beautiful views of the city from the 12th floor. The hitsumabushi can be ordered as a kaiseki course, which includes an assortment of beautiful, seasonal dishes. This is a great choice for those looking for a classy dinner in a fancy part of the city.
Hitsumabushi Nagoya Bincho Marronnier Gate Ginza 1 Location
: Lunch 11:00 am - 3:30 pm (L.O. 3:00 pm)
[Monday - Thursday, Sunday, National Holidays] Dinner 5:00 pm - 11:00 pm (L.O. 9:30 pm)
[Friday, Saturday, Day before National Holidays] Dinner 5:00 pm - 11:00 pm (L.O. 10:00 pm)Closed
: IrregularAverage price
: [Dinner] 6,000 JPY / [Lunch] 4,000 JPYAccess
: 4-minute walk from Exit C6 of Ginza Station on Ginza Line / 3-minute walk from the Central Exit of Yurakucho StationAddress
: 12F, MARRONNIER GATE, 2-2-14, Ginza, Chuo-ku, Tokyo MapMore Details Reservation
I hope that this article has inspired you to go to a unagi restaurant the next time you visit Japan! Eels may seem like a strange thing to eat, but they’re really one of those quintessentially Japanese foods that everyone should try at least once.
Disclaimer: All information is accurate at time of publication.