Introducing a Kansai feel for the eel

by John Ashburne

Special To The Japan Times

Every summer, as the mercury rises the gourmands of Kansai head for their local eel-cuisine specialist. The custom of eating unagi to alleviate the effects of the summer heat is known as doyō-no-ushi no hi, (day of the ox of the seasonal change period) or doyō-iri (entering the period of seasonal change).

Doyō are the enervating dog days of summer, stretching this year from July 19 to Aug. 8, with the period’s sole “Day of the Ox” — a particularly auspicious day to scoff the anguilliform delicacies — falling on Aug. 27.

Theories abound on how the custom originated, most attributing it to an advertising ploy by Gennai Hiraga, an eccentric Edo Period physician, inventor and author of the treatise “On Farting.”

Not sure if the latter had any relation to Hiraga’s fondness for eel, but his championing of the fish’s energizing quality does seem to be based on fact: It contains a lot of Vitamin E. Most importantly though, it simply tastes fantastic.

If you’re in the Kansai area, here a few establishments that serve unagi at its best.

Matsuno Manryo, Kyoto

Nestled in a leafy bamboo grove in the northern suburb of Iwakura Matsuno, Manryo is a class act. The high-end unagi-dining comes with a price tag to match, but if exquisite food in impossibly elegant surroundings is your goal, look no further.

It is a family-run concern, presided over by the ever-beaming Yoshiro Matsuno, who explains what makes his eel cuisine special: “I only use the finest eels, shipped in live from Shizuoka Prefecture, and I pierce them with bamboo skewers with an unusual degree of care so as not to damage their delicate flesh. It takes three years to learn slicing and eight years to learn the skewering. And the charcoal grilling — well, that takes a lifetime.”

Like the majority of eel served in Kansai, Matsuno Manryo’s is cooked Kanto Edomae style, also known as sebiraki, in which the fish is “sliced along the backbone” and steamed before it is grilled. It is served in beautiful Wajima-nuri lacquerware containers, atop rice, with a tare sauce that has been “in the making for two decades.”

Unagi kaiseki lunch courses begin at ¥5,000; dinner from ¥15,000. The Gion branch ([075] 561-2786) near the Minamiza theater serves reasonably-priced lunch and dinner courses.

Matsuno Manryo: Kino-cho 189, Iwakura, Sakyo-ku, Kyoto; (075) 701-1577. Noon to 9 p.m. (L.O.). Irregular closing days. Reservations necessary. Credit cards accepted. www.matsuno-co.com/rakuhoku_matsunomanryo.html.

Honke Shibato, Osaka

Honke Shibato has been in business for roughly three centuries, ever since the eighth shogun, Yoshimune (1684-1751), persuaded them to stop dallying with their river fish business and serve up his favorite eel. Today, in a humble building in Koraibashi, its 15th-generation “eel master” serves up excellent and reasonably priced eel cuisine to a mixture of office workers and not a few visiting tourists.

This is eel in the Osaka harabiraki-style — sliced from the front and solely grilled, without first steaming, over binchōtan charcoal that reaches 1,000 degrees.

The Osaka Mamushi, from ¥2,650-4,880, depending on size, has eel layered into the rice as well as topping it. Equally good is the Shirayaki set, at ¥3,820, which consists of unagi without tare, served with rice and suimono clear soup.

Honke Shibato: Koraibashi 2-5-2, Chuo-ku, Osaka; (06) 6231-4810. 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. (L.O.); 5 p.m. to 10.30 p.m. (L.O.). Closed Sun., public holidays. Reservations recommended, necessary during the summer months. Credit cards not accepted. www.shibato.net.

Issei, Kyoto

What a rare find this is. Chef Kazunori Ono’s unpretentious place in Kami-Katsura offers unprecedented cost-performance eel fare that, according to its many fans, surpasses its more famous and much more expensive cross-town rivals.

Call in advance to reserve the Issei Gozen lunch set, ¥1,850, limited to 10 servings per day, or just plump for the excellent-value teishoku set meal at ¥1,600. In the evening prices rise a little, but it’s still a bargain. For something out of the ordinary, try the original Shioshirayaki, eel served with homemade chirimen sanshō (whitebaits with pepper) and wasabi, ¥1,500 for half an eel, ¥2,700 for a whole fish, or ¥3,900 for one-and-a-half unagi.

Don’t let the distant-sounding address put you off. Time your connections right and it’s just 15 minutes from Kawaramachi Shijo Station on the Hankyu Line, near Kami-Katsura Station.

Issei, Kyoto: With One Building 2F, Matsuo Kinoso-cho 59, Nishikyo-ku, Kyoto; (075) 383-6500. 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. (L.O).; 5.30 p.m. to 8.30 p.m. (L.O.). Closed Mon. and occasionallyTues. Reservations recommended. Credit cards accepted.