Home / NIPPON's Gourmet / Four things to do before taking on Japanese food culture: Eating eels

Four things to do before taking on Japanese food culture: Eating eels

1.”Eels” for a hot summer!

Eels are a traditional diet of the Japanese people. We eat eels in summer when its hot on the midsummer day of the ox. But little did we know that eels are in season between fall and winter. The reason why we eat eels in summer is said to be because of Gennai Hiraga, who used the midsummer day of the ox as a slogan to sell eels during the summer. We can think of it as a present day Valentine’s Day chocolates or Halloween costumes.
But nutritions of eels are a great cure for fatigue, so it is logical to eat eels during the summer.

2.Other ways of cooking eels besides kabayaki (dipping in sauce and grilling)!

When it comes to eels, first thing you think of is kabayaki! The smell of the restaurant’s secret sauce is extremely luring.
Other eel dishes include “shirayaki” (plainly grilled with charcoal fire) to eat with rice, “umaki” where eels are wrapped in the middle of egg rolls, and “uzaku” where eels and cucumber is mixed together to snack on when drinking. Skewered and grilled eels innards or grilled bones are also great snacks when drinking.
It is well known in Japan that kabayaki eels are cooked differently in western Japan and eastern Japan.
In western Japan, eels are sliced open from the stomach and are grilled without steaming. In eastern Japan, eels are sliced open from the back and first grilled over a charcoal fire and then steamed. After that, they are dipped in sauce and grilled again. When eels are sliced open from the stomach, it referenced “seppuku” or a death ritual of samurai soldiers by slicing open one’s stomach. Edo located in eastern Japan was home to samurai soldiers. Therefore such way of preparing eels was unpopular.
On the other hand, western Japan was home to traders, where “speaking by slicing open one’s stomach” meaning speaking frankly became a reference of how eels are prepared.
So, where is the border between western and eastern Japan? It is actually said to be somewhere around Hamamatsu in Shizuoka Prefecture. On a side note, the border between western and eastern Japan on how udon noodle soup is prepared is somewhere around Kasumigahara near Gifu and Shiga, which is known as a battleground for the place on the throne during the Sengoku Period (1467-1603). The border for eels is slightly to the east of that border.

3.A must-know table manner for eating unaju (eel served in a boxed lacquer ware)

Unaju is perceived to be a luxury and also has a specific way of eating.
First, begin eating from the bottom left corner of the boxed lacquer ware and work your way to the right. When you have reached half way, turn the box 180 degrees and begin eating from the bottom left corner. If you are left handed, then begin eating from the bottom right corner.

4.Look for prestigous restaurants serving eels

So, have you read a food magazine called “Top 100 Eels” which was first published in 1984?
This magazine is placed in every restaurant specializing in kabayaki and was published to promote food culture dedicated for eels. This magazine has articles on stores in Hokkaido in the north and Kyushu in the south.
Please read this “Top 100 Eels” and travel around unique restaurants throughout Japan to find your favorite one.
Mass production through eel farming is still underdeveloped, the prices are soaring, and they are becoming a delicacy. We must thank researchers and producers for working hard every day to keep the Japanese food culture alive. Hopefully, we can all continue to keep this eel food culture alive..

Top image:東京日本橋

This post is also available in: Japanese

Check Also

Japanese sake, the global phenomenon — try it for yourself! An up-to-date beginner’s guide to Japanese sake.

We’re beginning to see renewed interest in Japanese sake from young people here in Japan. …