Like most Japanese foods, unagi is a food of many traditions and regional variations.

Eel is usually considered as meat in the sense that chicken or pork is rather than as fish. I have recently heard that unagi is sometimes served as sushi, which suprised me. It seems like chicken-zushi or like something as outlandish as cheese-flavoured ice cream. However, it might well be very common everywhere now. I am pretty well set in my ways and never look at a menu in a restaurant or order from anyone but the chef.

The kinds of unagi that I know of have two main variations in preparation: the Kansai style and the Kanto. These are two regions of Japan. Kansai includes Osaka and Kyoto, and Kanto is Tokyo and Yokohama.

In the Kansai style the eel is sliced from the front and the fins, head, and tail are left on. The tail is regarded as being especially good.

In the Kanto style the eel is sliced from the back and the fins, head, and tail are removed.

In Kansai, steel skewers are used; in Kanto, bamboo. Kansai uses eels over 150 grams in weight while Kanto uses smaller. Both styles agree that the eel should not be too large.

In both cases the eel is broiled skin side down, then steamed to remove fats, then broiled again. The eel is brushed with a sauce mainly comprised of shoyu and mirin. Other ingredients are zealously guarded secrets. The sauce creates a rich glaze. Restaurants rise and fall on the reputation of their sauce. When an old establishment changes hands, if the sauce changes as well, the old clientele abandons it without remorse. When new apprentices join the kitchen staff, they are watched with a sharp eye by the regular customers because it is those hands that will one day prepare the sauce.

As you can see, this is serious business.

There are three categories of unagi dishes.

  • Kabayaki. This really just means that it is grilled but refers to the best quality of eel served in a lacquer box with the accompaniments of rice, soup, and pickles on the side. The soup is always kimosui, a clear soup made from eel liver.
  • Unaju. This is good quality eel served over rice in a lacquer box. This is a Kanto region dish.
  • Unagi donbori, also called unadon. This is unagi served over rice in a bowl.
The smoky, mildly sweet and sour flavours of the unagi and the background of plain rice are quintessential. (Which is one of the reasons that unagi-zushi, with vinegared rice, strikes me as odd.)

Other, less common, unagi dishes are:

  • Mizore-ae. This is eel that has been blanched and then dressed with vinegar and shoyu with grated daikon and cucumber.
  • Uzaku. This is the same basically as mizore-ae save that the eel has been broiled and the sauce is sweeter.
  • Yahata-maki. Grilled eel rolled around slices of burdock.
Eel is commonly eaten year round but it has a long association with summer.
I'm not sure exactly what to call it, perhaps an old wives' tale or a popular misconception or perhaps even the cold hard truth, but it is commonly believed in Japan that eating eel during the summer will grant you increased sex drive and sexual stamina. For some reason this only works during summer, which is why unagi is most popular then and many stores will have discounts on unadon and the like.

I just like it for the texture and the taste. Really.

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