The Night of the Unagi

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I never liked eel, and am pretty sure that I won’t like it until my very last day. It’s slippery even if grilled. It tries to escape your stomach even when it should be dead. It haunts you in your dreams after you finally have managed to swallow it. However, there was one hot and humid spring night years ago in Nagoya that changed my mind(for at least that night) about eel, or Unagi as the Japanese call their freshwater eel (saltwater eels are known as Anago). Nagoya is a central town in Japan nobody goes to, except when they have dealings to do with the carmaker Toyota. Toyota’s headquarters are located nearby. Some people even claim that Nagoya is “Toyota town” (although there is an actual town called Toyota).

Back to the eel. The spring night in “Toyota town” brought me closer to an understanding that eating eel can lead to some good. That it actually can be quite a delicious dish, that it can be a truly Japanese experience beyond Japanese clichés. Ever since, this night is, as I call it, my night of the eel (or Unagi).

It had all started earlier that day. Together with three Japanese friends, we went to see the Ise Jingu (or just Jingu), to be considered the holiest Shinto shrine in Japan. Its buildings are rebuilt every 20 years, following an ancient Shinto tradition. For that matter, an empty space is located besides every current shrine building as a site for its next rebuilding.

My friends’ idea was to refill their (empty) spiritual batteries and gain strength for the coming tasks, like working as a typical Japanese salary man or founding the right spouse (meaning a spouse with the skills of enduring a typical salary man as husband). In my case it was – as I found out later – meant to win the strength for eating eel in three different manners in a row.  We left the shrine in the late afternoon under light rain, in high spirits, mentally stronger, even a bit humbler, better than we were before. We headed north, direction Nagoya.

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Unagi is typically eaten during the hot summers in Japan to give you strength for the second half of the year. It looked as my friends found a motto for the whole weekend: finding strength. Although the Shizuoka prefecture, especially the city of Hamamatsu, is considered to be the best place for Unagi, people also give the Aichi prefecture, with its capital Nagoya, some credit to serve a decent grilled eel (geography plays an important role in Japan, influencing where to eat which dish). There is even a Nagoya style of cooking Unagi, called Hitsumabushi. The eating procedure with Hitsumabushi is absolutely unique (read more here). The eel dish is divided into four portions. The first portion is basic grilled eel. The second portion adds some flavours (Wasabi horseradish, Nori dried laver, Mitsuba trefoil, etc.) to the Unagi. The third portion is similar to number two, with green tea poured over it. And, finally, as a culmination of everything, you can repeat the one combination you liked best.

We had our feast of Hitsumabushi in a restaurant called Ibashou where old ladies serve the dishes. That night, the eel was not slippery and it didn’t haunt me. I even enjoyed, what I would never have guessed before, round number four (and went back to the one with green tea). The eel was celebrated, and so was our recurring strength.  

As I later learned, in early 2013, the Japanese Environment Ministry put the Japanese eel on its red list of endangered freshwater and brackish water fish, although this move is not legally binding. I still don’t like eel, but in a way it saddens me that people might not be able (or at least not so often) to go to Nagoya for eating eel the Hitsumabushi way on a hot and humid summer night.

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Text: Daniel Iselin
Images: fotocommunitytokyoweekenderkushitei

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