Eel (うなぎ) are not the prettiest creatures in the world. In fact, in my home country, no one would ever think of eating a snake-looking animal. However, in Japan, China and a few other countries, eel has been part of the food culture since old times.
I didn’t know much about eel until I moved to Japan. Actually, my only image of an eel was that of an electric eel from the Peruvian Amazon. So, upon coming to Japan, I happily went to a kaitenzushi (train sushi restaurant) and tried eel for the first time. Its sweet sauce (たれ) makes eel sushi stand out among the other salty or savory fish.
Also, eel sushi is one of the few sushi that is NEVER raw. The reason behind this, is that the blood of eel is actually very poisonous, but the boiling process gets rid of this danger. This reminds me a bit of the tradition of eating fugu (blowfish) since the organs of this fish can kill you quickly if you don’t remove them correctly during its preparation. I suppose that eating deadly fish is very appealing.
Eel consumption reaches its peak every summer, when lots of Japanese people eat this fish in order to cool down and stay healthy during the hot season. As a matter of fact, there’s a special day during midsummer for eating eel. Every 土用の丑の日 doyou no ushi no hi (day of the Ox in midsummer), eel becomes the most wanted fish in the country.
Unfortunately, the global population of eel is decreasing, so prices rise every year. an unajuu or unadon (eel on a rice bowl) costs at least about 800-900 yen if the eel comes from China, and at least 1800 yen and more if it’s a local one.
I’ve of two areas in Japan that boast eel dishes as their local specialty: Nagoya city and the area surrounding Lake Hamana in Shizuoka prefecture. I have never been to Shizuoka, but I’ve been lucky enough to try hitsumabushi, a unique type of eel rice bowl that comes with seaweed, seasonings and a broth soup as side dishes. One must eat hitsumabushi in 3 different ways. First, as it is; second, with a mix of the seasonings and seaweed and last, with the broth soup poured on it.
Last, saltwater eel （穴子） is a much cheaper option to freshwater eel (うなぎ), but its taste and texture is not as good!