Unagi, the freshwater eel, holds a beloved place in Japanese cuisine. This rich, fatty fish is most well-known for its preparation in unagi kabayaki style, in which it is grilled with a sweet soy glaze. However, unagi finds its way into many types of Japanese dishes.
When prepared properly, unagi offers a unique texture and mouthfeel. Its flavor pairs wonderfully with traditional Japanese ingredients like ginger, soy sauce, mirin, and sansho pepper. While not as ubiquitous as sushi and sashimi, unagi remains an iconic part of washoku (traditional Japanese cuisine).
What Does Unagi Mean? Origins of the Japanese Word for Eel
The term unagi specifically refers to the freshwater eel species native to Japan and East Asia, Anguilla japonica. This fish is also known as the Japanese eel or Japanese conger. The kanji characters for unagi are 鰻, read as “unagi” in Japanese.
The term can also refer more generally to freshwater eel or eel dishes in Japanese cuisine. For saltwater eel, the Japanese use the word anago. So unagi and anago have distinct meanings, though their English translation is both simply “eel.”
The Cultural Significance of Unagi in Japan
Eating unagi holds cultural importance in Japan for a few reasons.
One is the phenomenon of “natsubate,” eating eel in the hottest days of summer. This tradition took hold in the 18th century as a way to fight fatigue during the summer. Unagi is seen as a nutritious food that provides stamina through Japan’s hot, humid summers.
Eel is also traditionally eaten on “Doyo No Ushi No Hi,” or Midsummer Day of the Ox. This holiday falls on the day of the Ox in late July or early August, hence the association with summer.
Finally, some believe that eating eel brings good luck and fortune. This belief stems from the fact that unagi can swim upriver, symbolizing determination. The fish’s wriggling movement is also reminiscent of a dragon, considered auspicious.
So while not as ubiquitous as sushi, unagi holds an important place in Japanese food culture. Now let’s look at the ways it is prepared and eaten.
How Unagi is Prepared and Eaten in Japanese Cuisine
Many Japanese unagi dishes focus on bringing out the natural rich, savory flavors of the eel. Here are some of the most popular preparation methods:
1. Kabayaki Style Unagi
Unagi no kabayaki is by far the most well-known unagi dish. It involves butterflying the eel and grilling it with a sweet soy sauce glaze called kabayaki. The fish is grilled until the skin is caramelized and the flesh takes on a melt-in-your-mouth texture.
This style of unagi is so iconic that the terms “unagi” and “unagi kabayaki” are sometimes used interchangeably in Japanese restaurants. Unagi kabayaki highlights the flavors of the eel itself rather than masking it with other ingredients.
2. Hitsumabushi Style Unagi
In hitsumabushi, cooked eel is chopped into small pieces or shredded and placed over a bowl of rice. It is typically served with condiments like nori, green onions, and wasabi.
Diners mix everything together with the rice as they eat. The rice absorbs the savory flavors of the eel, making this a simple, comforting dish. Hitsumabushi originated in Nagoya and remains a specialty of the region.
3. Shirayaki Style Unagi
Shirayaki or shirako unagi refers to eel prepared in a hot pot. Slices of unagi are simmered in a light broth along with vegetables like mushrooms, yam, or chrysanthemum greens.
The eel comes out tender from the simmering while absorbing the delicate flavors of the soup. This milder cooking method highlights the natural texture and umami of the eel.
4. Unagi Umaki (Unagi Omelette)
Unagi omelettes or unagi umami seamlessly incorporate pieces of broiled eel into a fluffy egg mixture. Sweet soy sauce is drizzled atop the cooked omelette.
This dish contrasts the soft, slightly sweet egg with meaty bites of unagi in each bite. It’s a creative way to enjoy unagi for breakfast or lunch.
5. Unadon (Unagi Rice Bowl)
Unadon features unagi kabayaki served over a bowl of steamed rice. Along with the eel, the rice is topped with sliced green onions and pickled cucumber for crunch.
The bowl is brushed with a sweetened soy sauce that mimics the kabayaki glaze. This balanced combination of protein, vegetables, and carbs makes a complete meal.
6. Unajuu (Luxury Version of Unadon)
Unajuu takes the unadon rice bowl to the next level with even higher quality unagi. The eel comes from white or gray female eels which are prized for their tender meat.
It is prepared meticulously and served with ultra fine-grained rice. Unajuu comes in a lacquered box along with extra kabayaki sauce on the side. This luxury version of unadon is a special treat.
As you can see, unagi adapts well to many cooking methods while imparting its own savory umami flavor. Now let’s look at the health benefits it offers.
Health Benefits of Eating Unagi
So why has unagi become such a prized delicacy in Japan? Here are some of its health and nutritional benefits:
- High in protein and vitamins – Unagi is an excellent source of protein, vitamin A, vitamin B1, vitamin B2, iron, and omega-3 fatty acids. The protein offer a boost of lasting energy.
- Heart healthy fats – Up to 80% of the fat in unagi comes from oleic acid and other monounsaturated fatty acids associated with good heart health.
- Anti-fatigue effects – Traditionally eaten in summer to fight fatigue, unagi provides a dose of minerals, amino acids, and vitamins to combat exhaustion.
- Brain boosting DHA – Unagi contains docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), an omega-3 fatty acid beneficial for brain and nerve development.
- Bone strengthening calcium & phosphorus – Unagi packs minerals like calcium, magnesium, and phosphorus important for bone density and strength.
Of course, as with any rich food, moderation is key. But the unique nutritional profile of unagi helps explain its popularity in Japan as a summertime delicacy.
Potential Health Risks of Eating Unagi
While unagi does offer some health upsides, there are also some cautions to keep in mind:
- High in fat & calories – The high fat and calorie counts mean unagi should be enjoyed in moderation, especially for those managing their weight.
- Contains purines – Purines can contribute to high uric acid which is linked to gout. Those with gout should limit intake.
- Risk of parasites – Raw or undercooked eel can potentially harbor parasites like roundworms. Proper preparation is key.
- High in sodium – The salt and soy sauce used to season unagi boosts the sodium content. This could be an issue for some.
- Mercury exposure – Long-living fish like eel can accumulate mercury over their lifespan. Pregnant women and young children should take care with amounts.
By enjoying unagi as part of an overall balanced diet, most people can incorporate it safely. But it’s worth keeping these precautions in mind as well.
How to Choose High-Quality Freshwater Eel for Cooking
If you want to prepare unagi at home, start by selecting excellent quality fresh unagi. Here are a few tips:
- Look for unagi with clear, bright eyes and skin – Dull color is a sign of age.
- Choose unagi that springs back when pressed – This indicates freshness. Older eel will be mushy.
- Check that the flesh is firm – Press it gently to check for resilience.
- Seek moist, shiny flesh – Dry, flaky meat means the unagi is less than fresh.
- Look for vibrant, reddish gill color – Pale gills indicate an older fish.
- Pick unagi that is between 4-8 pounds – This size offers the best texture and fat content.
Buying sushi-grade unagi from a specialty grocer will offer the highest chance of freshness. Proper freshness ensures the unagi flavor and texture will shine.
Where to Find Authentic Japanese-Style Unagi Outside of Japan
While less common than sushi, unagi has achieved popularity in Japanese restaurants around the world. Here are some places to enjoy authentic unagi preparations:
- Los Angeles, CA – Nicknamed “Little Osaka”, L.A. has dozens of Japanese eateries offering unagi.
- New York, NY – From upscale Manhattan sushi bars to Brooklyn noodle joints, NYC abounds with unagi.
- Vancouver, BC – Vancouver’s historic Japantown features unagi classics done right.
- Singapore – Singaporean Japanese restaurants like Hashida Sushi Singapore serve unagi hitsumabushi and unadon.
- London, England – Quality unagi can be found at London sushi mainstays like Sushi Tetsu.
Seek out highly-rated Japanese or sushi restaurants for your best chance of finding unagi on the menu. Major metro areas with strong Japanese populations are a good bet.
The Role of “Unagi” in Popular Culture
Beyond its culinary fame, unagi holds a place in modern pop culture as well.
On the NBC sitcom “Friends”, Ross is teased for his weird love of unagi, though it’s seen as an exotic food by the other characters.
Unagi was also the name of swordmaster in Nickelodeon’s animated series “Avatar: The Last Airbender”. He teaches two of the main characters advanced firebending skills.
While maybe not as ubiquitous as California rolls or spicy tuna, unagi enjoys recognition even with Western audiences unfamiliar with the intricacies of Japanese cuisine. Its rich taste and distinctive name give it memorable appeal.
Is There a Sustainable Alternative to Wild-Caught Eel?
Due to their long lifespans and migration patterns, wild unagi populations have suffered from overfishing and environmental pressures. Their numbers have declined across Asia.
However, aquaculture aims to provide a sustainable alternative for unagi lovers. Farms raising captive-bred unagi help meet commercial demand while easing pressure on wild stocks.
Unagi aquaculture originated in Japan in the 1960s and has expanded to Taiwan, China, and South Korea. Continued improvements in raising unagi through aquaculture provide hope for protecting wild eel populations.
While connoisseurs still prize wild-caught unagi for flavor and texture, farmed unagi offers an ethical option for enjoying this Japanese delicacy. More sustainable practices can ensure unagi remains available for future generations.
From its tender kabayaki to the rich unadon rice bowl, unagi has earned a beloved place in washoku. This freshwater eel offers a host of flavors and textures not found with other fish.
Yet balancing its consumption with responsible stewardship remains key to preserving unagi’s culinary legacy. By supporting best practices, food lovers can keep enjoying unagi’s uniqueness while protecting vulnerable eel populations.
Whether during natsubate summer feasts or on special occasions, unagi persists as one of Japan’s most cherished delicacies. Its richness and flavor profile hold an enduring spot in the realm of Japanese seafood. From tokyo to tables around the world, unagi remains an iconic eat.