Hi, there! Now, October has come, and the great autumn season has just started here in Japan. I am extremely excited to spend my favorite season for a while from now on. I am going to talk about Japanese foods again this time. There are lots of unfamiliar foods in Japan among foreign visitors, and eels are one of the typical foods which you think it creepy or weird to eat. It may be unacceptable if you don’t like fish and seafood, and It is also the foodstuff that is separated among Japanese people, likes, or dislikes. I either did not like eels so much when I was a kid because they have some kind of muddy smell. However, I gradually like to have it somehow as I have grown up, it is probably my favorite taste has changed.
Grilled Eels are Very Energetic Food for Surviving in the Extreme Heat
The most typical way to eat is called “Una-ju” or “Una-don”, which are grilled eels (“Kabayaki” in Japanese)and put them on the rice. “Una” is an abbreviation of “Unagi” which means “eel” in Japanese and “Ju” is also an abbreviation of “Jubako” which means the lacquered square container. (FYI, “Don” is an abbreviation of “Donburi” which means the ceramic bowl. As you know, “Katsu-don” is the fried deep pork covered by egg on the rice and “Gyu-don” is stewed beef with soy sauce taste on the rice. So, a concept of “Don” is a cuisine style of something on the rice in the ceramic bowl.) The main feature of “Una-ju” is well-grilled eels soaked by a sweet-salty sauce based on soy source and sugar. The sauce emphasizes its fragrant smell and works to remove from its muddy smell. As it is grilled by a charcoal fire, the meat of eel becomes a fluffy texture.
We have the custom to eat the grilled eels at the special day called “Doyo-no-Ushi-no-Hi” which means the day of the turn of the season. The days come 5-7 times a year and the day is different from year by year because how to count the day is according to the Japanese ancient calendar. The reason why we eat eels on the special days is related to our physical condition that we are easy to get sick at the seasonal changes. So, we consider needing to nourish ourselves by eating them. In particular, the custom is settled on the day of summer here, and supermarkets and Japanese restaurants are vigorously promoting the grilled eel on the day in late July and August. As I sweat a lot and lose my physical strength by extreme heatwaves in summer, the strong salty-sweet taste seems like making me more energetic.
A long time ago, there are plenty of natural or cultured eels made in Japan, however, the number of them has been decreasing and we have recently imported them from China. The Chinese one is also relatively good for its price and Of course, we can cook the dish at home, but I prefer to visit and enjoy the professional taste at the Japanese specialty restaurants even if it is more expensive. Moreover, I am not a good cook, so it is difficult to reproduce a similar dish at home. “Una-ju” (and “Una-don”) at a restaurant has several ranks such as S, M, and L according to the size of eels, and L size is more expensive than other sizes. The prices depend on the level of restaurants, and 3,000 yen to 6,000 yen per person is on average at specialty restaurants.
The Extension of Eel Dishes
Other than grilled with strong tasted sauce, you can also enjoy plain grilled eels called “Shira-yaki” if you don’t like the strong taste. Also, we have some extension menus, for example, “Umaki” is a Japanese style omelet with grilled eels inside which is my husband’s favorite, and “Hitsumabushi” is grilled eels on the rice which is local food in the Nagoya region and we can change tastes a few times on the same dish. Firstly, you can simply taste just the grilled eels and rice, then eat them mixed with some condiments such as wasabi, spring onion, and seaweed, and lastly pour green tea or fish-based soup stock on them for eating like soup risotto. The dish is very enjoyable to change tastes each time.
By the way, a cook who lives in Ota city in Gumma prefecture (suburb area of Tokyo) invented a great dish with a unique idea when the price of eels soared. It is grilled eggplants on the rice!! The appearance of the dish seems completely like grilled eels and so to speak, a perfect imitation. I have never tried it, but there are long queues by customers on weekends according to TV programs because the dish is almost grilled eels, more healthy, and a reasonable price (almost 1/3 of real ones). It is also easy to cook at home and a nice meal for people who cannot afford to buy expensive ones, don’t like eels, and vegetarians, isn’t it? When I have a chance to visit Ota city, I would like to try the grilled eggplants.
So, why don’t you try to eat eels for opening your new eyes to food culture when you visit here? The immigration restrictions for foreign visitors have been in place for another few months, however, the Japanese government started to be ready to welcome tourists from other countries since the next April for the Olympic Games. Well…of course, it depends on the trend of COVID-19 though…