Unagi: The Legacy of Freshwater Eel in Japan

  • FOOD
  • Japanese cuisine is world-famous for its balance of flavor and presentation. Japanese eel has a tradition all its own, being a treasured favorite for centuries. It is such a special dish that you will find restaurants specializing in unagi cuisine all over Japan, known as unagi-ya. People frequent these establishments almost exclusively to enjoy unagi cuisine, so the menu will tend to be quite simple, featuring a handful of traditional styles of preparation.


    Although Japanese people eat unagi all year-round, it is said to be particularly beneficial in August, during the height of the Japanese summer. It is said to revive the body and refresh your energy levels in the intense heat and humidity.


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    There is also a tradition in its presentation, as with most Japanese cuisine. It is served over rice in a lacquered wooden box, called ojuu, almost always accompanied by some pickled vegetables and a light soup. The ojuu itself is an age-old tradition, most commonly lacquered in black on the outside with gold details and red on the inside.


    Author’s photo

    The soup accompanying the unagi is typically of a lighter, thinner broth than the popular miso soup. There are some variations, but in it, you will often find the edible inner organs of the unagi.

    In the photo above, you can see a couple stems of herbs for a light spice, and a rice-flour cake for added texture.


    Author’s photo

    The atmosphere of many unagi-ya are often traditional themselves, featuring common elements of Japanese architecture and interior design, complementing the experience of indulging in this rare dish. And it is becoming increasingly so, as imported eel from China is offered at a more competitive price. Restaurants still prefer to offer eel fished in Japan because it is believed to be superior in quality, but the price of locally caught eel is rising. If you ever have the chance to try traditional unagi cuisine, it’s worth the money!
    Related: Eels for dinner!