The 27th of July this year was the one day of the year where people traditionally ate freshwater eel, Unagi, usually grilled over charcoal, as a “stamina food”, a meal presumed to give one the stamina to last out the hot summer days. This year African eels were imported to Japan for the first time and according to surveys didn’t go over to well. The eels might have still been eaten up, though out of curiosity.
After Tokugawa Ieyasu succeeded in unifying Japan with his victory at the Battle of Sekigahara, the capital moved from Kyoto to his base, the provincial town of Edo (now called Tokyo, or ‘East Capital’). Transforming Edo into a modern capital of its day required, among other things, extensive land reclamation projects.
Reclamation projects created temporary lakes and ponds in which unagi quickly invaded and flourished. Land reclamation is low paying work so laborers would simply catch unagi ‘on site’ for free. Physical labor is very hard work and unagi which is high in fat gave laborers the required energy.
In the early Edo period (1603-1868) unagi was considered a low class and unsophisticated food due to the fact that it was caught, chopped, roasted and eaten in the field by laborers and also because of its high fat content.
By the late Edo period though this had changed due to various unagi cooking processes being developed in the capital, namely kabayaki. With kabayaki, fish, generally unagi, is boned, put on metal skewers and grilled over charcoal while being dipped in a thick, sweetened soy sauce several times throughout the grilling process.
Today, unagi kabayaki is usually served on top of rice, as donburi, or unagi-don.
Difference Between Kanto and Kansai Style Unagi
Kanto (eastern Japan/Tokyo) style unagi is first steamed, then grilled kabayaki style. The steaming process causes a good deal of the fat to be removed and the unagi flesh to be soft.
Kansai (western Japan/Osaka, Kyoto) style unagi is not steamed, and therefore it is more fatty and chewy.
Another interesting difference is the way the unagi is cleaned. Edo was the seat of the military (samurai) government of Japan and samurai sometimes had to commit ritual suicide (seppeku 切腹) by cutting their lower abdomen open and slowly bleeding to death in excruciating pain. The purveyors of unagi cuisine were sensitive to this as samurai were among their customers, accordingly they split the eel open from the back, not the stomach; Japanese love this kind of thing. Also, usually the head and tail was removed in the process, though not out of deference to samurai.
In Kansai, in the merchant city of Osaka, there was a saying, ‘talk with your stomach open’; be frank, open and honest. So, in Kansai, the eels were split down the stomach. The head and tail usually remained attached.
About the Ushinohi ‘Eel Day’ Custom
In modern-day Japan, most everyone eats unagi on the Doyo-no-ushi-no-hi (土用の丑の日). This year it was on July 27th, but it occurs one day between mid-July and the beginning of August.