With a long, snake-like appearance, eels may seem an unlikely delicacy--but several varieties of Japanese eel have been popular for hundreds of years. This includes unagi (freshwater eel), anago (saltwater eel) and hamo (conger eel). Unagi in particular is prized for its soft, fatty meat and bold, rich taste.
Unagi is cultivated mainly during May to October, and is generally regarded amongst Japanese as being a summer food, as its high content of vitamins and minerals is believed to provide the energy necessary to “beat summer fatigue.” The tradition of Doyo Ushinohi - the Day of the Ox - which falls in the doyo period of early summer, is a day during the peak of summer dedicated to eating eel, which is believed to be particularly auspicious on this day. Here's a video on the culture of eating eel in Japan.
Japanese eel varieties are always eaten cooked, often in a creative array serving styles. They often come served with other dishes that have light, subtle flavors to balance the richness of the eel meat. Ground sansho pepper, a native pepper to Japan with a strong herbal flavor, is a popular condiment to serve with eel, as it cuts through the fatty flavor of the eel.
Unagi can be eaten at a variety of restaurants, such as tempura, kaiseki or sushi restaurants, or at specialty unagi restaurants known as unagiya. Here’s a selection of a range of ways to eat unagi, from a selection of some of the finest unagiya specialty shops across Japan.
8 Mouth-Watering Ways to Cook Unagi and Anago
Unagi no Kabayaki
Kabayaki is a cooking style in which a fish is filleted, deboned, butterflied, skewered, grilled, and then brushed with a special tare, a sweet soy sauce. This is one of the most popular ways to eat unagi, as the fattiness of the eel when cooked gives it a deep, rich flavor and crisp texture. It is common for restaurants to keep their particular variety of eel tare a guarded secret! The grilled unagi no kabayaki is then often served over rice, known as unagi don or unaju, either in a bowl or in special lacquerware known as jubako.
At Unagi no Satsuma in Aichi, unagi no kabayaki is their signature dish. It’s served flame-broiled and piping hot unaju-style, and comprises a whole Mikawa eel, served as an exquisite three or four-piece arrangement. Paired with soft, fluffy Koshihikari rice and a secret dipping sauce, along with tsukemono (pickles), mozuku (seaweed) and suimono (soup) - this is an altogether aromatic and delectable match.
Shirayaki unagi or shirayaki anago is similar to kabayaki in that the unagi is filleted, deboned, butterflied, skewered, and grilled. However, in shirayaki-style cooking, the eel is roasted without the tare sauce and seasoned only with salt, a cooking method ensuring that the genuine flavor of the eel is on show. Obviously, this is a favorite dish of eel purists.
Asakusa Unagi Sansho, a restaurant dedicated to unlocking the pure, unadulterated flavor of Japanese eel, serves shirayaki unagi cooked to perfection, complemented by sides of wasabi and a light soy-based dipping sauce. At Unagi Fujita Shirokanedai, eels are prepared in the Hamamatsu way, which means thoroughly grilling using Bincho charcoal to bring out a stronger aroma, and applying sake during the process to make them plumper. This unique cooking method creates an irresistible combination of the savory taste of eel with sweetened fat.
Hitsumabushi is originally a Nagoya meibutsu (local specialty), however has become popular in other parts of Japan due to its unique serving style. Eel is split along the belly, grilled whole, then divided into four portions. The first portion is eaten on the rice bowl, as is. The second has condiments such as wasabi, finely sliced negi (green onions), and shredded nori added to it - all ingredients that complement the flavor of the eel. The third portion is eaten in a similar way to the second, with condiments added, but then has freshly-brewed green tea or broth poured over it, ochazuke-style. For the fourth portion, you choose your favorite style to repeat. This style of eating eel is thought to have originated at the end of the Meiji Era, with resourceful waitresses serving chopped up leftover eel atop individual bowls of cooked rice (o-hitsu).
Try hitsumabushi in the Aichi prefecture, the home of the dish, at Unagi Fukuzuchi. This well-established unagiya, with a sense of tradition, serves a skillfully made hitsumabushi. The fluffy texture of the grilled eel combined with the inherited secret tare sauce, is a dish of which they are very proud. For those short on time, the "souvenir hitsumabushi" is a take-out only version which can be quickly prepared depending on budget or number of people.
Nigiri sushi, also called edomae sushi, refers to the most common way of eating sushi in Japan. It consists of a ball of pressed rice topped with a strip of sushi called a neta, which literally means, “ingredients.” Both unagi and anago are popular types of neta. They are grilled and brushed with tare sauce, and then served in slices as nigiri. The robust flavor of the eel is complemented by the sweet and plain rice below.
For plump and juicy anago nigiri, try Sushi Ginza Onodera, who select the fattiest anago for their sushi. The chef acquires only the best seasonal ingredients from both Tokyo’s renowned Tsukiji market and from around Japan, skillfully preparing the tare sauce to match.
Eel Hone Senbei
Hone means bone in Japanese, and senbei are traditional crackers. Hone senbei are a popular otsumami (snack to have with alcoholic drinks) of deep-fried fish bones. These are characteristically crunchy, with a light, salted flavor. Given the long length and spines of eels, their backbones are ideal for senbei.
Eel hone senbei can be found at Nihonbashi Tamai, where the bones are roasted and then fried in oil, for a delightfully crispy texture. These are perfect as a snack with a glass of sake or beer, and come in generous portion sizes. The eels used at Nihonbashi Tamai are specially selected daily at the Tsukiji fish market to ensure the best quality dishes, which are then cooked using methods that allow customers to savor the flavors to the fullest, a philosophy applied to all parts of the eel.
Umaki and Amaki
Maki means “rolled” in Japanese, like makizushi (rolled sushi), or tamagomaki, a rolled egg omelet. Umaki is slices of eel wrapped tamagoyaki, and is a mouthwatering combination of the rich, savory, and slightly salty of flavors of the eel, and soft, fluffy texture and sweet taste of the omelet.
Nihonbashi Tamai wrap their boiled eel in a dashimaki omelet. Cooking the omelet with dashi (Japanese broth) makes it extra juicy, resulting in an extremely tender dish that is served piping hot with their special fragrant eel sauce. Asakusa Unagi Sansho also serve a delicately rolled amaki. Their eels are delivered live each day to ensure freshness, then personally prepared by the chef and served at very reasonable prices, earning the restaurant a reputation as one of the best-kept secrets in Tokyo.
Kimoyaki is a dish of the grilled eel liver ("kimo" meaning eel liver, "yaki" meaning grilled), cooked over charcoal, basted with a tare sauce, and often served sprinkled with sansho pepper. Kimoyaki are a popular otsumami, with the rich, complex taste pairing excellently with beer and other alcoholic beverages. Kimo are also extremely rich in iron, vitamins and calcium and so are also viewed as being energy-providing and nutritious.
At Unagi Fukuzuchi, kimoyaki comes as one of their top recommended dishes. Their signature preparation method, to keep the livers on the grill a little longer than usual, adds a wonderful depth to the flavor. At Hashimoto in Tokyo, kimoyaki are skewered and cooked over Bincho charcoal, and served with a secret house-made sauce that complements the bitterness of the liver. This dish is said to go perfectly with both hot and cold Japanese sake.
Kimosui (soup) is a clear soup made flavored with boiled eel livers and added to a broth of dashi, mirin, soy sauce, and Japanese mitsuba, which provides a fresh, herbaceous element. This soup is commonly served aside a meal of eel, to make for a real nose-to-tail dining experience known as una-zukushi - an all-eel meal.
Savor kimosui at Unagi Fujita Shirokanedai, a branch of the well-established Hamamatsu unagiya, the unajyu comes served with an elegant-tasting kimosui and pickles. The firmness of the rice complements the unagi. The Shirokanedai branch is managed directly by the 4th-generation Unagi Fujita owner, who truly treasures eels and works carefully with them.
Japanese Eel Varieties Offer Endless Culinary Possibilities
For what seems like quite a simple ingredient, there are a plethora of ways to enjoy eel in Japan, with each preparation technique uniquely enhancing the flavor of the eel. Whether it’s sweet and deeply flavored unagi no kabayaki, or fragrant kimosui or fluffy, crispy shirayaki, there’s a style to suit all tastes. Browse Savor Japan’s restaurant listings to find a specialty eel restaurant in Japan, and experience the rich flavor of unagi and anago.