Freshwater eel or "unagi" in Japan is one of the exquisite sea creatures that's being prepared for many cuisines. Revered for its rich, buttery texture and unique flavor, it's a staple in many traditional delicacies in Japan. But what exactly is unagi, and how has it become such an integral part of Japanese culinary culture?
A Glimpse into the History of Unagi
Eating unagi in Japan has ancient roots. Historically, the eel was a luxury extinction, often eaten and served for special occasions and celebrations. Over time, as captivity methods of eel evolved, it became more accessible to the masses. Aquaculture farmed eel in the country has continuously changed. Farmers have formulated creative ways to catch this wild Japanese eel. Today, sushi dishes, unagi sushi, and sushi rice, are not just limited to Japan but have fans worldwide.
The Japanese eel has always held cultural significance. From ancient folklore to traditional festivals, all the eels have been revered both as a symbol of prosperity and as a source of sustenance to increase stamina. Its presence in cultural texts and ancient manuscripts underscores its importance in Japanese society.
The Traditional Grilling of Unagi in Japan
The most popular way to enjoy unagi is grilled, known as "kabayaki."Before you cook eel, first, you split down the back, gutted, and deboned, until you see the white underbelly. It's then skewered and grilled over charcoal, giving it a smoky flavor. Once grilled, it's brushed with a sweet and savory sauce called "unagi tare," which caramelizes on the eel, creating a delightful glaze. This method enhances the natural flavors of the eel, resulting in a succulent and flavorful food.
Unagi Kabayaki Grilled Eel from Bokksu Market is a testament to this traditional method, offering a taste of authentic Japanese comfort food.
"Unagi" or Eel Sauce: The Perfect Complement
Unagi tare, or unagi sauce, is a thick, sweet fish sauce made primarily from soy sauce, mirin (sweet rice wine), and sugar. This rich unagi is best served or prepared with soy sauce. It's the perfect complement to grilled eel, enhancing its natural flavors. The sauce can also be used in various other dishes, adding depth and richness.
For those keen to try, Bokksu Market offers a premium Unagi Eel Sushi Sauce that captures the essence of this traditional fish condiment.
Crafting the Perfect Unagi Sushi
Unagi sushi, with its combination of tender eel and perfectly seasoned unagi sushi rice, is a treat for the senses. To make unagi sushi, grill eel and slice it, and place it atop a small bed of sushi rice, often with a brush of unagi sauce for added flavor.
For those looking to recreate this delicacy at home, pairing the Unagi Kabayaki Grilled Eel with Nishiki Premium Steamed Rice from Bokksu Market ensures a dish that's both authentic and delicious.
Unagi Don: A Bowl of Comfort and Flavor
One of the most iconic ways to enjoy unagi is in the form of "Unagi Don" or "Unadon." This dish consists of grilled eel slices laid atop a bed of steaming rice, all generously glazed with unagi sauce. The combination of the warm, fluffy rice with the rich, savory eel creates a harmonious blend of textures and flavors that is both comforting and indulgent.
Originating in the Edo period, Unagi Don has a history that's as rich as its taste. It was traditionally eaten during the hotter months specifically on a midsummer day, believed to provide stamina and energy to combat the fatigue brought on by the heat. Today, it's enjoyed year-round by many, cherished not just for its potential health benefits such as protein but also for its delectable taste.
The key to a perfect Unagi Don lies in the quality of its ingredients. The saltwater eel or eels from rivers or lakes must be grilled to perfection, with its skin slightly crispy and the flesh tender and juicy. The rice should be of premium quality, cooked just right to retain its individual grain structure while being soft and fluffy. And, of course, the unagi sauce should be rich and flavorful, tying the dish together.
For those looking to recreate this classic at home, pairing the Unagi Kabayaki Grilled Eel with Nishiki Premium Steamed Rice from Bokksu Market, and drizzling it with the Unagi Eel Sushi Sauce, ensures an authentic Unagi Don experience.
Unagi in Modern Cuisine
The allure of unagi, the Japanese freshwater eel, is not confined to traditional dishes. While its roots are deeply embedded in age-old Japanese culinary practices, unagi's versatility has made it a star ingredient in contemporary cuisine. As global palates evolve and fusion dishes gain popularity, unagi has found its way into innovative recipes, blending the best of traditional flavors with modern culinary eel techniques.
From Sushi Bars to Gourmet Restaurants
While unagi nigiri and unagi donburi remain staples in sushi bars worldwide, modern chefs are pushing the boundaries of how this sushi delicacy is presented and consumed. Unagi tacos, where the grilled eel is paired with avocado and a touch of wasabi mayo, offer a delightful fusion of Japanese and Mexican flavors. Unagi pizzas, topped with slices of caramelized eel, spring onions, and a drizzle of unagi sauce, are becoming popular in upscale restaurants, merging Italian and Japanese culinary traditions.
Unagi in Fusion Dishes
The rich, umami flavor of unagi pairs beautifully with various ingredients, making it a favorite for fusion dishes. Think of unagi sliders, where the eel replaces the traditional beef patty, or unagi pasta, where grilled eel pieces are tossed with spaghetti in a light soy and garlic sauce. These eel dishes showcase the adaptability of unagi in blending seamlessly with diverse cuisines.
Elevating Street Food with Unagi or Eels
Street food vendors, known for their innovative and quick dishes, have also embraced unagi or eels. Unagi bao buns, where soft, pillowy buns are filled with slices of grilled eel, pickled vegetables, and a touch of spicy mayo, are a testament to the fusion of traditional Japanese flavors with popular Asian street food.
The Future of Unagi or Eel in Global Cuisine
As the world becomes more interconnected, the boundaries of traditional cuisines are continually being redefined. With its unique flavor profile and adaptability, it is at the forefront of this culinary revolution. Whether it's being incorporated into gourmet dishes in Michelin-starred restaurants or reimagined in street food stalls, unagi's presence in modern cuisine is undeniable.
While unagi's roots are traditional, its future is dynamic and global. As chefs continue to experiment and innovate, unagi's role in modern cuisine is set to expand, introducing this Japanese delicacy to new audiences and palates worldwide. Eel cuisines accompanied by rich soy sauce have captured various palates around the world.
Sourcing and Sustainability
With the rising demand for unagi or eel, sustainability has become a concern. Overfishing of glass eels is the juvenile stage of the life cycle of an eel. It has led to a decline in eel populations. As a result, sustainable farm practices are being adopted to ensure that future generations can continue to enjoy this delicacy.
More farms raised, feed, and produce eels from a controlled water temperature culture. Wild eels are not only served but the farmed ones too. These farmed eels served the rising demand for eel delicacies.
The Allure of Unagi Sushi
From its historical significance to its contemporary role in Japanese cuisine, unagi sushi continues to captivate food enthusiasts around the world. Whether you're savoring a plate of unagi nigiri at a sushi bar or enjoying grilled eel at a traditional Japanese eatery, the experience is bound to be memorable.
For those interested in experiencing a culinary adventure, Bokksu Market offers a range of unagi products, ensuring a taste of authentic Japanese flavors.