Japan is well known for many dishes, including ramen, soba, tempura, and sushi. But have you ever heard of unagi? This comprehensive guide will take you through the fascinating world of unagi, covering everything you need to know about this mouthwatering dish.
Check out our list of 50 traditional Japanese foods to try for more food inspiration.
What is Unagi?
Unagi refers to freshwater eel, specifically the species Anguilla japonica. Unagi is typically prepared by grilling it over charcoal and glazing it with a savory sauce. It's known for its firm but tender flesh, indulgent fattiness, and distinctively sweet flavor.
While unagi is available all year, it's especially popular during summer. Some believe that eating unagi boosts stamina and heat tolerance during the humid and hot Japanese summers.
Unagi vs. Anago
Unagi is often confused with anago, another type of eel commonly found in Japanese cuisine. While both eels belong to the same family, they have distinct differences. Unagi is a freshwater eel, while anago grow up in salt water. Unagi has a much higher fat content, resulting in a richer, buttery flavor. Anago, on the other hand, has a lean, fluffy texture and milder taste. Both types of eel have their unique appeal and are eaten in various ways, but unagi has traditionally remained the more popular choice.
Types of Unagi
Unagi is prepared and enjoyed in different styles across Japan. The most prominent variations are Kanto style and Kansai style. Kanto-style unagi is typically fileted, skewered, and grilled. Then, it's steamed before being grilled again and finally brushed with a sweet soy-based sauce. Kansai-style unagi is butterflied and then grilled in sauce. No steaming is involved, resulting in a crispier exterior and softer interior.
Unagi Don and Other Ways to Eat Unagi
One of the most popular ways to enjoy unagi is over freshly steamed white rice. When the grilled eel is placed in a bowl, it's called unadon. When it is placed on rice in a lacquered box, it's known as unaju.
You'll also find unagi in sushi rolls, fried tempura style, and even in hot pots. Umaki is another dish where the grilled eel is wrapped in egg. There's also uzaku, where the eel is cut into small chunks and mixed with cucumber and a vinegar-based sauce to make a light, refreshing side dish.
Unagi sauce, also known as kabayaki sauce, is an integral component of the unagi experience. The sauce is made by simmering soy sauce, mirin (a sweet rice wine), sugar, and sometimes sake together until it thickens into a glossy, caramel-like consistency. The resulting sauce perfectly complements the natural flavors of the unagi, adding depth and richness to the grilled eel.
How to Make Unagi Sauce
Making your own unagi sauce at home is quite easy. To make kabayaki sauce:
- Combine 1 cup of soy sauce, 1 cup of mirin, 1/2 cup of sugar, and 1/4 cup of sake in a saucepan.
- Bring the mixture to a boil, then reduce the heat and simmer until it thickens to the desired consistency, stirring occasionally.
- Once the sauce has cooled, glaze your grilled unagi or use as a dipping sauce for various dishes.
Where to Eat Unagi
Unagi restaurants can be found throughout Japan. In Tokyo, the Nihonbashi neighborhood is known for its long-standing unagi restaurants. Kyoto also boasts exceptional establishments, especially in the Pontocho district, where you can enjoy Kansai-style unagi. Otherwise, consider visiting Nagoya, which is famous for unagi. The best way to try eel in all its various forms is to sign up for a local food tour.
If you're looking to savor authentic unagi, there are a multitude of renowned restaurants that specialize in this delectable dish. Here is a list of famous unagi restaurants:
- Unagiya – Located in Tokyo, Unagiya is a classic yet moderately priced unagi specialty restaurant, which the late founder of Honda picked as a personal favorite.
- Takotsubo – With an emphasis on seasonal dining, Takotsubo is a place where you can experience the traditional flavors of Hiroshima with every dish.
- Unagi Yamanochaya – Serving guests since the early 20th century, this hidden gem of a restaurant in the heart of Tokyo offers a luxurious unagi experience that those curious about the dish shouldn't miss.
- Unagi Uomasa – The coveted secret sauce at this restaurant has been a hit since it opened nearly four decades ago. Featuring farmed unagi on the menu, this restaurant is a good choice for those wanting a more conscious meal choice.
- Unagi Hashimoto – In business since 1835, this famous restaurant has been a mainstay in the unagi scene since it opened. Located in an old teahouse-style building, the dishes here are simple but certainly not lacking in flavor.
Is Unagi Sustainable?
Declines in the wild eel population and, as such, the rising cost of eel have made unagi more of a luxury treat than a meal for daily consumption. Concerns about overfishing, habitat loss, and pollution have all contributed to concerns about the sustainability of unagi.
In 2013, Japan added unagi to its endangered species list. Efforts are being made to promote more sustainable practices to ensure the long-term viability of eel consumption, but consumers should be aware that no major breakthroughs have been found.
If you're curious to try unagi but wish to be mindful and support sustainable practices, look for restaurants that source their unagi from responsibly managed farms and sustainable aquaculture practices.
Vegan & Vegetarian Unagi
For those following a vegan or vegetarian lifestyle, several alternatives are available to experience the flavors and textures of unagi. Several plant-based options have been developed using ingredients such as tofu, eggplant, or mushrooms, which are marinated and grilled to mimic the taste and appearance of unagi. Be sure to look for these on the menus of vegan and vegetarian restaurants in Tokyo and Kyoto.
Unagi is a dish that combines tradition, cooking mastery, and exceptional flavors. Whether you're a seasoned food lover or a curious explorer of new tastes, this Japanese delicacy promises a remarkable dining experience. Add a stop at an unagi restaurant to your next Japan itinerary.
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