While unagi is enjoyed all year long, the Japanese appetite for this traditional delicacy grows insatiable during the summer. Anyone who’s spent time in Japan during summer knows July and August are a hot and sticky affair. The Japanese believe you will find no better remedy for heat fatigue (natsubate) than consuming unagi. Boost your stamina! Increase your appetite! Replenish your strength! While these three commonly touted reasons may well have a basis in science, the best reason to eat Japanese freshwater eel is this — it tastes simply delectable.
On one day every summer most Japanese will be dining on some version of unagi — Doyo no Ushi no Hi. This means Day of the Ox, also nicknamed Unagi no Hi (or Unagi Day). This midsummer day is considered the hottest day of the year and, incidentally, when the body needs the biggest boost of energy. Because the day is set by the lunar calendar, the actual date varies year to year.
The origins of this dish can be traced back to the Edo period (1603-1868), which not only gave rise to foods like sushi and soba but also simple roasted unagi.
Back in the day, eels were plentiful in the rivers of Edo (present-day Tokyo). While nowadays, sushi, soba and unagi enjoy elevated status as sophisticated foods, they all started by way of humble beginnings. For example, sushi and eel – considered then as cheap food for the masses – were primarily sold as fast food from street vendors’ carts (think the very first food trucks). In the late Edo period, specialty unagiya started to pop up, preparing the fish in the way we know today, over charcoal and basted with sauce, called kabayaki.
Beyond kabayaki style, eel is enjoyed today in so many delectable ways. Listed below are some of the most popular unagi dishes. When you visit any unagiya, you can be sure to find these on the menu.
Common Menu Styles
Kabayaki: As explained above, the eel is boned and filleted, put on skewers and grilled over charcoal while being dipped in a thick, sweetened soy sauce several times throughout the grilling process.
Unaju/Unadon: Kabayaki is served over rice and presented in a lacquer bento box (unaju) or bowl (unadon), and eaten with a sprinkling of sansho pepper.
Hone-senbei: Deep-fried eel bones that are crisp like chips and high in calcium.
One of the greatest things about unagi is that very little goes to waste. Most parts of the fish are cooked and enjoyed, not just for taste but also nutrition. Eel is a great source of protein, vitamins, healthy fat, collagen and omega fatty acids. What’s more, Japanese believe that organs like eel liver are more nutritious than the meat itself.
A Dying Tradition?
In recent years, consumers have seen a rise in prices due to overfishing of eel. Dwindling supplies and a decline in patrons – due to the growing cost – have forced a number of long established unagiya to go out of business.
But many establishments are still in operation and you can still get a solid lunch set of high-quality eel (plus rice, pickles and soup) for less than ¥2,000. Some of my favorite unagi restaurants include Inageya and Yatsumeya Nishimura in Tokyo, Yoshizuka Unagiya in Fukuoka, and Unagi no Sueyoshi in Kagoshima.
So, with the hottest days of summer still to come, don’t fall prey to natsubate. Enjoy some unagi, the best antidote to summer’s sweltering heat.