The Eel Enthusiasts
Unagi (ウナギ, うなぎ, freshwater eel), specifically the Japanese eel (日本鰻, にほんうなぎ, nihon unagi), holds a revered place in Japanese cuisine. Rich in protein, vitamin A, and calcium, it's a culinary delight that's not to be confused with saltwater eel, anago (穴子, あなご). The most famous preparation style is kabayaki (蒲焼, かばやき), where unagi fillets are grilled and basted in a savory sweet sauce.
Strolling through the bustling streets of Japan, you'll come across Unagi-ya, easily recognizable with their unique signage often incorporating the shape of an eel for the U character with うなぎ (Unagi) or 鰻 and adorned with mouthwatering displays of eel dishes. These aren't just restaurants; they're gateways to a culinary adventure unlike any other!
Common Unagi Menu Items
Kimoyaki (肝焼き, きもやき) - Grilled Eel Liver: The liver of the eel, skewered and grilled, offering a rich and umami introduction to eel cuisine.
Shirayaki (白焼き, しらやき) - Grilled Eel Without Sauce: Eel is lightly seasoned and grilled, allowing the natural flavors to shine through.
Unadon (鰻丼, うなどん) - Eel Bowl: Grilled eel served atop a bowl of white rice, a standard yet beloved eel dish.
Unaju (鰻重, うなじゅう) - Eel Rice Box: Similar to unadon, unaju presents the eel and rice in a beautiful lacquered box.
Kabayaki (蒲焼, かばやき) - Broiled Eel: Eel broiled with a sweet and savory soy-based sauce, a traditional preparation method.
Unagi Sarada (うなぎサラダ) - Eel Salad: A fresh salad topped with pieces of flavorful grilled eel.
Unagi Pai (うなぎパイ) - Eel Pie: A sweet snack made from powdered eel, often enjoyed with tea. An entirely sweet crisp biscuit with a touch of soy sauce flavor, so don't think you are about to partake in "fishy crackers".
Unagi's rich, fatty flavor is especially popular during summer, believed to increase stamina and heat tolerance. The Midsummer Ox Day, doyo no ushi no hi (土用の丑の日), marks a special occasion for indulging in unagi. Grilled unagi is often accompanied by powdered sansho (山椒, さんしょう, Japanese pepper), which balances the eel's fattiness. However, a sparing use of sansho is advised to not overpower the dish.
Eating in an Unagi-ya, like in any Japanese restaurant, comes with its own set of etiquettes. It's polite to say 'itadakimasu' (I humbly receive) before you start eating and 'gochisousama deshita' (thank you for the meal) when you finish. Use your chopsticks correctly; avoid passing food directly from your chopsticks to someone else's, as it is considered rude.
Unagi is best experienced at specialized unagi-ya, though it can also be found in many other shokudo (cafeterias), izakayas, sushi-ya and other restaurants. However, a decline in unagi populations, particularly the Japanese unagi species, has made it a more expensive dining option. Expect to pay a premium price for this true delicacy of Japan.
Kansai Fixer and the Unagi Experience
For those seeking the authentic unagi experience in Japan, Kansai Fixer stands as a guide. From navigating the unagi-ya to understanding the cultural nuances of unagi cuisine, Kansai Fixer provides a seamless travel experience. The Japanese adventure awaits, and with Kansai Fixer's guidance, the gastronomic journey through unagi becomes a lasting memory.
Embark on a culinary exploration of unagi and immerse in the authentic flavors of Japan. Connect with Kansai Fixer to make your Japanese adventure unforgettable. Visit our YouTube channel or join us with All Things Japan on our Patreon page for more insights and personalized travel experiences. The world of Unagi-ya awaits!