When I first came to Japan, I knew about eels only from stories. Mostly from the book Golden Eels by Ota Pavel. So my first eel I could taste was Japanese kabayaki unagi. Unagi instantly became my favorite food. Many foreigners in Japan shared the same enthusiasm for unagi in a strong unagi sauce. It is food that captivates. Unfortunately unagi was also a food which one can’t eat every day in Japan because it’s too expensive. And it is becoming nowadays even more expensive. Especially when you think about unagi coming from Japanese freshwater farms. Unagi from the wild, well, it wasn’t for our wallet at all. In Japan today, most unagi are imported from China, as well as here in Czech. The quality depends on how good the Chinese source is. You can usually tell by the price.
I think of unagi these days because this food can help to regain strength. Whenever I ran out of energy in Japan, especially when I was pregnant, left without help, we decided as a family and went to eat unagi on Sunday. To our favorit restaurant, because you can best enjoy such a delicacy only from professionals. Besides the main dish we usually ordered kabuto, it is a crunchy head and also a kimo, which are unagi livers. They are great in kimosui soup or on a stick like yakitori. I also took home unagi hone sembei with me – crispy skeletons full of calcium. “Hone” means bone. I loved it all. After eating unagi I always felt my determination to do what was needed come back to me. I believed, and I believe, what was said in Japan that many people survived the atomic explosion in Hiroshima because they could afford to eat a lot of unagi. Unagi meat is said to help the body break down toxins. As far as I know, the unagi definitely renew vitality. I don’t know if you’ve ever experienced a Japanese summer, but I tell you it is terrible. Hot. Unbearably hot. Wet heat day and night lasting for many weeks. Without a break. On such days, when people already feel exhausted not wanting to eat and perhaps even drink, then these are the right days for unagi dish. Now we have March here, and obviously it is not the weather what troubles us, but the covid pandemic and everything around. It is hard. Covid is exhausting. We are left with little energy and unagi cries out: I am that power!
As I say, it’s not cheap food, but it helps. In Miyabi, we have newly prepared a take away unagi for you in a paper box, which is very similar to the Japanese unadon or unaju in a lacquered box. The base is white freshly cooked rice, decorated with pickled takuan radish and the dominant part is, of course, unagi like kabayaki, means open eel fillet in unagi sauce. And when the sansho peper is sprinkled, it’s great. We in Miyabi buy unagi frozen and already tasted. We just fine-tune them for you. At home you may warm up the box in the microwave and the delicacy is on the table!
What does such a miraculous unagi dish contain? Phosphorus – for those toxins. Calcium. And vitamins A, D, E, B1, B2 and B12. Omega 3 also. When you’re in Japan, and I’m really looking forward to be there, be sure to enjoy unagi. Lake Hamana near the town of Hamamatsu is full of farms for unagi. This is a famous unagi place. The fry are from the wild, but feeding is done on the farms. It has its risks and therefore the unagi population is getting weaker. This year I should be in Hamamatsu for a while with my husband at Shizuoka University. I will check out small restaurants in the town and around the lake and I promise to share news about unagi with you. Imagine, even unagi biscuits are made from unagi as a regional specialty. Instead of wheat flour they use unagi flour. I’m really looking forward to finding out everything I can do about unagi meals.
Japanese eels are not as big and fat as we sometimes see in our fisheries or as Czech fishermen know them when eels go. Chefs who prepare unagi in Japan must be very skilled and very well trained. The blood of eels contains a poison similar to the poison after a snake bite. Therefore, eels are never eaten raw like sashimi. Not even eels that never enter brackish or fresh waters. These eels have a different name – anago. They are smaller, with stiffer meat and are used as a delicacy in sushi restaurants. Mostly only in Japan. What you get in the Czech Republic, including Miyabi, is unagi.
Going to a restaurant in Japan that specializes in unagi is a great experience. In the bucket you can see live unagi intertwined over each other. They are thirty centimeter long and look like snakes. Young eels. When the guest arrives, the chef removes one ell from the bucket, clips it on a cutting board, skillfully makes open fillets, puts in them skewers and prepares unagi for further processing. So your food is totally fresh. According to regional customs, the fillets are either steamed first or grilled straight away. Filets are soaked in unagi sauce, which is ongoingly re-adjusted. The original foundation can be many decades old. A new portion is added every day. Sos is as old as the restaurant is old. Sos is the pride and treasure of business. But good unagi can also be without a sauce. Who likes unagi just simply with salt, fine, there is unagi mostly untouched. White. This special eel dish is called shiroyaki, and it is good only from extra high quiality unagi. I must say that in my life I ate it only three times. It is eaten with freshly grated real wasabi. Yeah, unagi! It’s a delicacy!
But enough memories. Enough desires. Unagi as we have them in Miyabi are fine too. We have unagi domburi, unagi nigiri or chirashizushi with unagi. I’m going to order from the chefs right away. And what about you?
I wish you will experience unagi with the heart of a beginner – shoshin – full of eagerness to know the unknown. Shoshin wo bekarazu!