The Scrumptious Unagi of Japan

Food is among the basic needs of any being in this world in order to live, they have scavenged for food throughout history. There are animals that can only eat vegetables, known as herbivores, and there are some that can only eat meat, known as carnivores. Due to this, rations for some animals are limited to only meat or vegetables. For human beings, they are omnivores, which means that their bodies can ingest and process both vegetables and meat. However, preference for either the two may be different depending on each person. Through the years, people have developed food into different kinds of dishes with varying flavors and ingredients. This is so as not just to survive but to also actually enjoy the food in their mouths.

One of the most well-known countries in Asia that prepare food delicately and unlike any other is Japan. While some of their dishes consist of meat, they have various kinds of healthy Japanese meals that incorporate seafood heavily. One of their most famous foods in the world is sushi. This is not just because of how they prepare the dish but also because of how fresh it is. Among the most popular dishes in Japan, although a bit expensive compared to other typical Japanese dishes, is unagi.

Unagi: The Freshwater Eel of Japan

Also known as nihon unagi in Japanese, Japanese eel is one of the most popular dishes in the country. Called Anguilla japonica, the Japanese eel is a specialty in many restaurants in the country. Just to clear things up, unagi is not the same as anago, which is a saltwater eel. Unagi is a general ingredient used in a lot of Japanese cooking, though usually used as kabayaki or grilled unagi on skewers served without rice.

There are many ways to cook unagi though the most common method is by grilling the freshwater eel. While it may be considered expensive to get the unagi as it is considered a delicacy in Japan, many people are still more than willing to pay the price. This is because unagi not only gives that distinct flavor that several people crave for but also nutrients that are believed to strengthen one’s stamina. It is high in vitamin A, calcium, and protein. Vitamin A is good for eyesight while calcium is known for strengthening the bones of the body. As for protein, it is a well-known fact that it strengthens the muscles of the body for it to be able to move.

It is customary in Japan to consume unagi on the “Midsummer Day of the Ox” on the lunar calendar, which is usually during the hottest days of the summer season. Many locals believe that it is during this time of the year, known as doyo no ushi no hi, wherein eating unagi would give strength and vitality to the body for the rest of the year. Several restaurants in Japan specialize in unagi cuisine and probably the best place to get unagi is in Laka Hama in Hamamatsu City, Shizuoka Prefecture. Only the highest quality of unagi is being served there; hence, many tourists flock to this location to try out their unagi dishes. For those who just love unagi, this is the place to be.

Tourists also usually take photos of their unagi dishes as these are usually served in a nice presentation and detail. The unagi itself provides a rich flavor accompanying by varying textures. When biting onto unagi, the outside gives that crispy texture while the meat inside is juicy, succulent, and tender. Having two kinds of texture in unagi may be attributed to its cooking process. The chef initially grills the eel over hot charcoal then steams it to eliminate the excess fat of the eel. After which, it is seasoned with a sauce then grilled again for the second time, which provides that crispiness to it.

For a crispier skin, some chefs in restaurants around Osaka, specifically in the Kansai region, no longer take the steaming process of unagi. Instead, the freshwater eel is grilled for a longer period of time while removing the excess fat. This, in turn, produces a crispier skin of unagi. Unagi restaurants nationwide mostly have an elongated hiragana sign, which is the first character for the word “unagi,” outside their restaurants.

Fancy unagi restaurants typically have their own tanks filled with swimming freshwater eels. Once ordered, only then would they catch an eel and cook it in order to serve only the freshest unagi dishes. The common size of eels ranges from 30 to 50 centimeters. Because the eels are only prepared once the order has been placed, it may take some time before the dish can be served. Still, many people say that it is worth the wait as the unagi dish is best served fresh.

Furthermore, unagi restaurants, though specializing in unagi dishes, also serve other seafood dishes such as dojo, which is a small fish that is highly similar to freshwater eels. These fishes usually swim in local waters during the summer season. The most popular dojo dish is yanagawa-nabe, which is a mild casserole made with three main ingredients, namely, eggs, burdock root, and, of course, boiled unagi-like dojo.

Unagi Don or Unadon: Eel on Top of Rice

There are several dishes that can be made from utilizing unagi. For those who want a more filling meal with unagi, probably the best dish to try is unagi don. Also known as unadon for short of unagi and donburi, it is basically just unagi on top of steamed rice. It is comprised of steamed white rice filling a donburi type large bowl topped with fillets of unagi or freshwater eel. The unagi in unadon is grilled in kabayaki style, which is closely related to the style of teriyaki.

The unagi is placed on top of the steamed white rice with its grayish skin placed face down. A sweetened soy-based sauce known as tare is glazed on top of the unagi that was grilled and not flayed. It is customary for the tare sauce on top of the unagi to be just enough so as some of the sauce may sauce through the steamed rice below. A sprinkle of seasoning on top of the unagi is placed known as pulverized dried berries of sansho.

Literally translating to “eel bowl” in English, unadon has many variations. These include unaju, nagayaki, and hitsumabushi. Unaju is a dish similar to that served in jubako, which are lacquered food boxes. On the other hand, nagayaki is a variant of unadon wherein instead of the unagi being placed on top of the steamed white rice, both the unagi and the steamed white rice are served in separate containers.

For those who would like to try their hand at cooking unagi at home, it is also a must to try making the customary unagi sauce known as tare. It only takes about 20 minutes to prepare this sauce, which makes the unagi all the more scrumptious. There are only four basic ingredients needed in order to make this unagi sauce, namely, mirin, sake, sugar, and soy sauce.

The first step is to combine ¼ cup of mirin and 1 ½ tablespoon of sake in a small saucepan over high heat. Let it boil so as to let the alcohol content of the mixture evaporate. After which, add 2 ½ tablespoons of sugar into the mix. Stir the mix until all the grains of sugar have dissolved. Then, pour ¼ cup of soy sauce into the mixture and let it boil.

 After boiling, set the temperature to low heat and let it simmer for 20 minutes or so. When the timer is up, turn the heat off and let the sauce cool down for a bit. It is then ready to be served. The sauce should be a little bit thick and have a sweet flavor to it. If there is leftover unagi sauce, it can be stored in the refrigerator for about 2 to 3 months.

The 3 Parts of Making Unagi Roll

For those who want a lighter snack with unagi, they may want to try making unagi roll instead. They are not as heavy as unadon but can still fill the stomach due to its rice content. These are perfect for appetizers as they come in small portions. Making unagi roll only takes a few simple steps. The important part of making unagi roll is the technique in preparing the dish.

The first step is to cook the sushi rice. Properly washing and draining the sushi rice is a must for this step. For the rice to water ratio, a single cup of rice equates to just a little less than a cup of water to be put in a rice cooker. After the rice has been cooked, transfer it to a mixing bowl to cool the rice down. Add 1 ounce of sushi su seasoning onto the rice and mix well. Let it cool for some time. A tip to speed up the cooling process is to turn the rice at certain intervals in order to help it cool down evenly.

On a bamboo rolling mat, also called a makisu in Japanese, place a full sheet of dried seaweed or nori in Japanese. It is ideal to place the smooth and shiny side of the sheet in contact with the mat and the rough side facing up. This is because the rough side of the nori sheet tends to hold the rice better while the smooth and shiny side provides a nice presentation.

After the rice has considerably cooled down, cover the entire nori sheet with rice, except for about 7/8 inch at the far end. Press the rice evenly on the sheet with one’s hands. Ensure that the hands are a bit damp so as to avoid letting the rice stick onto the palm and fingers. Sprinkle some sesame seeds on top of the white rice going from the left side to the right side of the mat.

The next step is to place the other key ingredients of on top of the rice. These include the bands of unagi, kaiware sprouts, and cucumber, also from left to right. After all the ingredients are placed, it is rolling time. Carefully roll the edge closest to the body up and away from the body. Gently tuck in the roll and continue rolling until the far end has been reached. It is important to ensure that all ingredients within the sushi roll are secured nice and tight so as to have them all intact when cutting.

Upon reaching the end of the roll, seal it by compressing the roll with the bamboo mat. Cut into the roll using a knife. Ensure that the blade of the knife is wet so that the rice would not stick to the blade. After which, the unagi roll is ready to be served.

Another Unagi Dish: Unagi Sushi

One other easy dish to try to make is unagi sushi. It is highly similar to that or unagi roll, except that the rice wraps around the nori sheet and other key ingredients. That is basically the only difference between these two dishes. Nonetheless, both still taste great, especially with the grilled freshwater eel inside. These two dishes are definitely a must-try for people who love sushi and Japanese rolls.

The Japanese delicacy that is unagi is known all around the world. Due to its amazing texture and scrumptious flavor, it is no wonder that people all over the world actually travel to Japan just to be able to get a taste of the unagi that many people have hailed as among the best dishes to try in the Land of the Sun. Should one find him or herself visiting Japan, instead of trying out just the katsudons and sashimis that the country has to offer, try out unagi dishes and one would most certainly not regret it.