Big in Japan: So how exactly do you eat an eel?

Answer: Grilled over hot charcoals, basted with special sauce and served over a bed of white rice.

This month marks the start of the unagi (?????) season in Japan, namely the time of the year when freshwater eels are fat, fresh and ready for feasting. Now, I know the idea of eating something as slick and slimy as an eel might not exactly be the most appealing thing for Western pallets. But, I can assure you that freshwater eels, if prepared properly, are just as delicious as they are nutritious.

Freshwater eels are extremely high in protein, vitamin A and calcium, yet they sit light enough in the stomach to be enjoyed on a hot summer day in Tokyo. And, while a meal of unagi costs less than a bottle of Viagra, it is believed to increase your virility (ie make you a champ in the sack!).

Not surprisingly, unagi shops across the country are getting ready for their annual rush of suit-clad salarymen, who line up for unadon (??, literally eel bowl), a bowl of sticky rice topped with grilled eel filets that are coated with a sweet and tangy sauce.

Getting hungry? Keep on reading to find out more.

For starters, what exactly is a freshwater eel? Good question!

In Japan, the most common species that you find on the menu is the Anguilla japonica, a species of eel found in Japan, Korea, the East China Sea and the northern Philippines. Like most eels of its family, it is “catadromous,” which is a fancy word that means it lives parts of its life in both freshwater and saltwater.

According to Japanese scientists (who have spent considerably more time and money than you’d guess studying the breeding habits of this tasty critter), Anguilla japonica spawn in the far-flung Mariana Islands, and then migrate thousands of miles to the freshwater rivers in East Asia. After arriving in freshwater, they fatten themselves up on a diet of shrimp, insects and small fish before being caught, sliced and served up on a bed of rice.

Unagi is typically served in a special black box, and is spiced up with a traditional blend of red and white pepper. While eels may have gooey exteriors and a rather unpleasant appearance in life, in death – at least at the hands of a skilled chef – they have a sweet and buttery taste that is regarded as an expensive delicacy. Throughout Japan, specialist eel restaurants can be identified by signs that depict the word unagi using the letter u (the hiragana う) in the curved shape of an eel.

Like most elements of Japanese cuisine, it’s somewhat debatable as to whether or not your children and grandchildren will ever be able to enjoy unagi. Sadly, changing water conditions both in rivers and seas are threatening eel populations, which means that you may want to go heavy on unagi this summer, thus ensuring your future popularity with the fairer sex.

Bon appetite, or as they say here in Japan, ittadakimasu!!

** All images courtesy of the WikiCommons Media Project **