Ask a Japanese person what they would choose for their last meal on earth and the answer may well be unagi (eel). In 2000, when domestic eel consumption reached peak levels, a whopping 70 percent of the world’s eel supply ended up on Japanese tables. Eighteen years later, that figure has shrunk considerably — now it’s more like 35 to 45 percent, but eel is still incredibly popular.
This year was a hugely expensive year to enjoy unagi, particularly the coveted glass eel. Most Japanese eel producers buy the eel fry (juveniles) from Southeast Asia and China, and then cultivate them at home before selling them on the domestic market. In January, imported eel fry were going for ¥3.9 million per kilogram, by far the costliest it has ever been.
By May, the end price for ready-to-eat, fully grown eels had settled into the ¥5,000 per kilo bracket, which, when eaten at a high-end restaurant, translates to about ¥4,000 to ¥5,000 for two slices.
Unagi is expensive to produce and costly to eat. Most eel stocks are also endangered and unsustainable. In spite of all this, the Japanese passion for the slippery river fish continues unabated and unagi producers must scramble every year to secure the river fish in time for summer.
That’s when consumption soars. Doyō no ushi no hi (which translates to “midsummer day of the ox” and fell on July 20 this year) is the day on which Japanese eat unagi, in accordance with the old Japanese calendar. The emergence of this practice is often credited to Hiraga Gennai (1728-80), a celebrated doctor who, in the late 18th century, publicly declared that eating eel on doyō no ushi no hi ensured a safe, healthy passage through the hot summer months, warding off illness and other misfortune. On his recommendation, crowds began to line up at unagi establishments all over the city of Edo (now Tokyo).
Hiraga was a renaissance man famed for dabbling in everything from Western-style oil painting to electrical engineering, but he was also an excellent ad man. He made what was arguably Japan’s first toothpaste jingle and launched the unagi campaign, which has held to this day and is arguably even more deeply rooted in Japanese culture now.
I know numerous people who panic at the thought of not getting their dose of unagi on doyō no ushi no hi. Those people are apt to put in their unagi order at their local convenience stores a month in advance, and then get a notification on the day they can pick it up.
And it’s not just a seasonal thing. For many Japanese, unagi is the “it” food, the cure-all for everything from depression to a failing relationship. It is also celebrated for its taste, the secret of which lies as much in the sweet-salty sauce called tare (the recipes of which many unagi masters carry to their graves) as it is in the intensely laborious process of grilling unagi, known as kabayaki.
Kabayaki sounds deceptively simple: slit open the unagi, pierce the meat on the ends of wooden kushi skewers, dip it into the tare and then grill it over a slow charcoal fire. But anyone who has spent even five minutes in the company of an unagi chef will understand there’s nothing remotely simple about it.
The art requires years of apprenticeship (it’s said that a disciple must toil nine years in front of a charcoal pit before he can even hope to properly grill unagi) and after becoming a full-fledged artisan, the work is grueling. The hands of a veteran unagi chef are gasp-inducing: the fingers scarred, stained and punctured from years of slitting and piercing, the palms thick, red and callused from the grilling.
This is probably why unagi has historically been considered a “manly” dish — the equivalent of an expertly cooked sirloin steak in the U.S. It’s also blessed with celebratory connotations and was thought to be an aphrodisiac for men; back in Hiraga’s time, unagi restaurants often doubled as love hotels.
Unagi still conjures up images of love and sexuality. A friend of mine held his wedding reception at Izuei Honten in Ueno Park — a famed eel establishment that has a 260-year history. Though the bride’s friends were taken aback by the excessively traditional venue and the full course unagi menu (even dessert was eel-based), the wedding party was a huge hit among my friend’s company bosses. He is happy to report that after 15 years, his marriage bonds are stronger than ever.
Maybe he has unagi to thank for that. Visually, unagi seems unromantic, but some Japanese men claim it has the same effects as Viagra or at the very least, infuses a sense of well-being. The kimo, or stomach of the unagi, is said to work wonders for optometric diseases, and it’s customary to partake in kimosui (eel belly steeped in dashi soup) along with unagi. A spoonful of ground-up kimo powder is said to restore male confidence in a way that pumping iron at the gym rarely can — it is loaded with vitamins A and E, warms the body and ramps up circulation.
Though the health benefits are open to dispute, there’s no denying that unagi has a special place in the Japanese heart. It may lack the global fame of sushi or the comfort food familiarity of ramen, but kabayaki is a genuine classic. It’s much better to go to a well-known establishment than opt for the cheaper version purchased at supermarkets and convenience stores. At present, a lacquered box of kabayaki slices over rice goes for anywhere between ¥3,000 and ¥10,000 at places like the aforementioned Izuei or Maekawa in Asakusa.
Enjoy it while you can, which may not be for very much longer.