Unagi, or freshwater eel, is a popular ingredient in Japanese cuisine, especially in sushi and sashimi. The scientific name for the Japanese unagi is Anguilla japonica.
Unagi has a distinct, sweet, savory flavor and a soft, creamy texture when grilled or prepared properly. This makes it a delicacy that is enjoyed both on its own and as part of elegant sushi rolls and bowls.
The consumption of unagi in Japan has a long history tracing back hundreds of years. Some notable facts about unagi include:
- Unagi is traditionally eaten during the summer months to help fight fatigue from the heat. This is because unagi contains lots of protein, vitamins, and minerals.
- Special unagi restaurants called unagi-ya focus specifically on preparing fresh, high quality grilled unagi.
- The most popular unagi dish is unaju, grilled unagi served over rice inside a lacquered box.
- Other common unagi dishes are unagi donburi (grilled eel over rice in a bowl), unagi sushi rolls, and unagi kabayaki (grilled unagi on skewers).
- Once prepared, unagi does not keep for long due to its high fat content. It is best consumed immediately or within a day or two.
So in summary, unagi is a flavorful, nutritious type of eel that has become a Japanese cuisine icon, especially for sushi and summer dishes. Its rich taste and velvety texture make it a much sought after ingredient.
Why Is Unagi Popular?
As mentioned above, unagi has become an iconic ingredient in Japanese cuisine, especially during the summer. But what makes it so popular and different from other types of seafood?
Here are some of the main reasons why unagi is such a prized delicacy in Japan:
Unique Flavor Profile
The flavor of grilled unagi is described as sweet and savory, with a light smokiness from being cooked over hot charcoal. It has a rich, almost meaty umami taste that is highly craveable. The soft, creamy texture also enhances the mouthfeel. This combination of sweet, savory, smoky, and velvety smooth create a distinctive flavor profile unmatched by other fish and eels.
In addition to being low in fat, unagi contains many essential vitamins and minerals. Specifically, it is high in vitamin A, vitamin B, omega-3 fatty acids, selenium, and potassium. These nutrients provide energy, improve immunity, and help fight fatigue. This makes unagi a nutritious summer dish in Japan.
Texture and Presentation
Properly grilled unagi has a perfectly soft, creamy interior that contrasts elegantly with the charred, lacquered exterior. It looks beautiful presented over rice in a traditional unagi-don bowl or unaju box. The striking presentation also adds to the appeal.
Premium Ingredient for Sushi
Good sushi restaurants always aim to source only the finest quality fish. The unique taste and texture of unagi make it a premium ingredient for high-end sushi rolls and bowls. Its soft texture and umami flavor balance the rice, nori, and other ingredients.
So in summary, the combination of delicious rich flavor, health benefits, beautiful presentation, and status as a luxury ingredient come together to make unagi one of the most popular seafood choices in modern Japanese cuisine.
Where Can You Buy Fresh Unagi Locally?
If you want to make authentic Japanese unagi dishes at home, you’ll need access to fresh, high-quality unagi. Here are some of the best places to find fresh unagi meat locally:
Your best bet is looking in the seafood section of an Asian supermarket, especially ones specializing in Japanese ingredients. The seafood counter may even have unagi available that they will cut and prepare to order. Ask them when they get fresh unagi shipments as well.
Some premium seafood markets and fishmongers may carry whole fresh unagi in stock, or may be able to source it through their distributors. Let them know in advance if you are looking to buy high-end unagi.
Specialty Grocery Stores
In some major metropolitan areas, specialty grocery stores focused on international foods carry hard-to-find Japanese ingredients like unagi. Check the seafood case or ask at the butcher counter.
You can sometimes convince sushi restaurants to sell small quantities of unagi for home use if you ask politely. This is hit or miss, but some places are willing to do so for loyal customers.
The availability of fresh unagi can be seasonal and highly variable based on your location. Calling around to the stores above in advance will save you time instead of making fruitless trips. Paying a premium cost is often necessary as well to source high-quality fresh unagi locally.
Where Can You Buy Fresh Unagi Online?
If you are striking out finding fresh unagi at local stores, the internet provides some good options for buying premium unagi to be shipped to your home. Here are some of the best places to buy fresh & authentic unagi online:
Online Seafood Retailers
There are a growing number of reputable online seafood companies that ship fresh unagi nationwide. This provides the convenience of receiving high-quality unagi no matter where you live. Do research to find ones with fast shipping and good unagi reviews.
Online Asian Grocery Stores
Several online stores specializing in Japanese grocery products have free shipping unagi selections available. They source authentic unagi and overnight ship it packed with ice to ensure freshness. Buying extra unagi and freezing some is a good idea.
Amazon and eBay
You can find some unagi dealers selling fresh or frozen unagi via Amazon and eBay. Prices and shipping times can be hit or miss. Focus on reputable sellers with recent positive unagi reviews and fast estimated delivery.
The benefit of buying unagi online is it opens up access to premium unagi no matter where you live. Make sure to factor in the shipping costs when comparing prices between different online unagi retailers. Proper overnight shipping with ice packs is ideal.
How to Choose High-Quality Unagi
If you are buying unagi in person or online, here are some tips for picking out the best quality unagi:
- Appearance – It should have shiny, clean looking skin without discoloration or dryness. Avoid any with cuts, bruises, or cloudiness.
- Smell – Fresh unagi should smell mildly briny/oceanic without any fishiness or ammonia odor.
- Texture – The flesh should be firm and spring back when pressed gently. It should not be mushy or gelatinous.
- Size – Longer, fatter cuts are better than skinny strips. Figure 6-10 oz per unagi serving.
- Storage Method – Buying unagi that is refrigerated or displayed on ice is best. Avoid frozen-thawed.
- Reputation of Seller – Buy from reputable fishmongers and grocers with high unagi turnover.
- Freshness – Try to determine when and where the unagi was caught. Domestic and fresher is ideal.
Taking a close look and asking questions will help ensure you get the best tasting, highest quality unagi for serving.
What Are the Prices of Unagi in Different Places?
The price you will pay for unagi can vary dramatically based on factors like:
- Where you purchase it
- Whether it is domestic or imported
- Freshness and quality grade
- Quantity and size of cuts
- Additional processing/preparation done
Here are some typical current unagi prices seen at different sources:
- Japanese Grocery Store – $30-$60 per pound
- Online Retailers – $40-$80 per pound
- Specialty Fish Markets – $60-$120+ per pound
- Sushi Restaurants (if available) – $100+ per pound
Keep in mind unagi imported from overseas tends to cost less than domestic Japanese unagi. Prices also fluctuate seasonally and with availability.
Restaurant prepared unagi dishes range from $15 for basic donburi bowls to $40+ for high-end unaju boxes or sushi rolls including unagi.
As you can see, authentic high-grade unagi commands a premium price. But fans argue the memorable eating experience is worth the cost for special occasions.
How to Store and Prepare Purchased Unagi at Home
Careful storage and preparation is needed once you buy raw unagi fillets for making home dishes:
- Keep unagi refrigerated until ready to use, for no more than 2-3 days.
- Rinse fillets under cold water and pat dry with paper towels before cooking.
- Skewer fillets before grilling to keep their shape. Bamboo skewers work well.
- Grill over high heat, basting frequently with tare sauce. This caramelizes the outside while keeping the interior moist.
- Slice the grilled fillets into smaller serving pieces.
- Use immediately over rice, in rolls, etc. Leftovers should be refrigerated and consumed within 24 hours.
- For easier prep, fillets can be steamed instead of grilled before serving. But grilling lends the iconic smoky flavor.
- If your recipe calls for it, use the fish bones/frame to make unagi sauce and broth from scratch.
Take extra care when preparing raw unagi compared to other fish due to its rich fat content. Proper skewers, basting, and quick consumption lead to the best home cooked unagi.
What Are Some Popular Dishes Made with Unagi?
Here is a quick overview of some of the most well-known Japanese dishes featuring grilled unagi:
This traditional preparation involves unagi kabayaki (grilled eel) served over rice in a lacquered box called a jubako. Enjoy the contrast of smoky unagi with sweet soy sauce, crunchy cucumber, and savory rice.
Also known as unagi don, this simple bowl features steamed rice topped with unagi kabayaki slices. Straightforward but delicious. Add pickled vegetables on the side.
Unagi Sushi Rolls
High-end sushi restaurants may offer unagi nigiri, but using unagi in creative rolls is also popular. Common combos include unagi + avocado, unagi + cucumber, or tempura unagi rolls.
This dish is basically skewered, grilled unagi fillets basted in sweet tare sauce. It can be enjoyed on its own or used in the dishes above.
A specialty of Nagoya, this consists of chopped unagi over rice & enjoyed in several stages: plain, with condiments, then finally as ochazuke soup.
Unagi lends its unique presence to any Japanese dish. Part of the allure is that unagi tastes special as the star ingredient or a supporting player.
Unagi Recipes for Beginners
Interested in preparing unagi yourself but don’t know where to start? Here are a couple straightforward unagi recipes perfect for beginners:
Unagi Donburi (Unagi Rice Bowl)
- 1 fresh unagi fillet (6-8 oz)
- 2 tsp soy sauce
- 2 tsp mirin
- 1 cup steamed Japanese rice
- Scallions (garnish)
- Lightly salt unagi fillet and grill over high heat 5-7 minutes each side.
- Combine soy sauce & mirin as sauce. Brush onto unagi last 2-3 minutes of grilling.
- Slice unagi into pieces. Place over rice in bowl.
- Pour any extra sauce over unagi and rice. Garnish with chopped scallions.
Unagi Nigiri Sushi
- 1 fresh unagi fillet (6-8 oz)
- Soy sauce & wasabi (for serving)
- 2 cups prepared sushi rice
- Nori sheets
- Follow process above to grill unagi fillet (skip sauce).
- Cut fillet into long strips about 1 inch wide.
- Place one strip unagi atop small ball of sushi rice.
- Top with thin strip of nori. Repeat to make 5-6 pieces.
- Serve with soy sauce & wasabi on the side for dipping.
These simple but tasty unagi recipes are a perfect introduction to preparing unagi at home. Once comfortable, you can try more advanced unagi dishes. Let us know how your unagi cooking attempts go!
Can You Catch Your Own Eel for Making Unagi?
Many people don’t realize that live freshwater eels suitable for making unagi can be caught right in their local rivers and lakes. Anglers can harvest their own unagi as long as they follow certain guidelines:
- Make sure eel fishing is legal during specific seasons in your area. A license is usually required. Know the daily catch limits too.
- Target freshwater eels species like American eel and conger eel which resemble unagi in taste and texture when cooked.
- Use nightcrawlers or small live bait on a basic bottom rig to catch live eels. Focus on pool areas near rocks and vegetation.
- Handle eels carefully with thick gloves. Use a dehooker tool to remove hooks safely.
- Keep eels alive on rope stringers or in live wells until ready to dispatch humanely.
- Bleed, clean, and prepare eels soon after catching. Unagi recipes can be followed as normal.
- Grill and eat the fresh-caught unagi as quickly as possible for best flavor and texture.
Catching your own unagi can be very rewarding but requires knowledge of local regulations, proper technique, and safe handling. Having a delicious home-caught unagi feast makes the effort worthwhile for passionate anglers.
Unagi is a prized delicacy in Japanese cuisine, especially during summer months, due to its unique sweet and savory flavor, velvety texture, and nutritional value. There are many elegant ways to enjoy unagi, from traditional unaju boxes to modern unagi sushi rolls. Sourcing high-quality fresh unagi can be difficult, but Asian markets, specialty stores, and online retailers offer options for those who want authentic unagi to prepare homemade dishes. With its rich taste and tender meat, it’s easy to see why unagi remains an iconic and luxurious fixture of the Japanese dining experience.