Japan is known throughout the world for their use of cutting edge technology to make everyday life easier. In fact, there are hundreds of products in Japan with the sole purpose of increasing strength and alleviating suffering in the sweltering days of summer, yet none work as well as unagi, the Anguilla Japonica freshwater eel. This historical food remedy is crunchy and sweet on the outside, while remaining succulent and soft on the inside. Unagi is served throughout the year but the peak consumption is during the summer months in most major cities.
Rich in Vitamin A, B1, B2, D, and E, calcium, and protein, unagi has stamina enhancing properties that were discovered by accident during the Edo period. A struggling restaurant owner began advertising unagi during the Japanese Day of the Ox (the equivalent to the English Midsummer’s Day), using a play on words, since both the Day of the Ox (ushi no hi) and unagi eel (unagi) begin with the letter “u.” The promotion worked and sales took off. Thus began the thinking that unagi was a good way to gain stamina during the summer. Two hundred years later, scientists discovered the stamina inducing protein and vitamins contained in the meal, forever locking unagi’s place as an essential component of Japanese summers.
According to Japanese folklore, if you eat unagi on the Day of the Ox, you will have more stamina and endurance for the rest of the year. As a result, as the Day of the Ox approaches, customers flock to restaurants and shops around Tokyo, Osaka, and Kyoto, trying to stock up on eel before supplies run out. The most popular unagi dishes are:
◉ Kabayaki is unagi that is grilled over hot charcoal, steamed to remove fat, seasoned with a sweet basting sauce, and grilled a final time over hot charcoal. It can be served on a skewer as a hors d ’oeuvre, on top of a bed of rice, or inside a sushi roll.
◉ Unadon is kabayaki unagi over a bowl of rice, served as donburi (rice bowl) in a lacquer bowl.
◉ Unakyu is kabayaki unagi served either inside a maki (sushi roll) or sashimi-style over a small scoop of rice.
◉ Unajyu is kabayaki unagi served in a lacquer bento box with sansho pepper sprinkled on top, a side soup of Kimosu, and pickled vegetables.
◉ Kimosu is a clear soup with unagi liver.
◉ Shiroyaki is unagi that is grilled without a sauce over hot charcoal, steamed to remove fat, and grilled a final time. It is served plain, with wasabi or soy sauce.
During the summer months, most high end unagi restaurants will have a tank in the center filled with unagi and other seafood creatures and some Izakaya bars will have a small black bucket under the sink filled with live unagi. When you order, they will catch and begin preparing the eel; some people like watching their food be prepared, other people find it a huge turn-off. In any case, this approach produces what is arguably the freshest and most delicious unagi in Japan. The restaurant Nodaiwa is one of the most famous unagi restaurants in Tokyo that will prepare your unagi fresh. If you do not want to see the unagi being sliced up, try the Mahoroba or Goshiki restaurants.
Unagi is a summertime favorite in Japan. This stamina-boosting treat is perfect for an afternoon snack, a romantic dinner, or as hors d’oeuvres with friends. If you find yourself in Japan on the Day of the Ox, typically nicknamed Eel Day, go down to your local convenience store, neighborhood restaurant, or Izakaya bar and try their unagi specials.