Monday 24 July 2017

Grilled Eel Meat - and Deep-Fried Bones - as a Summer Pick-me-up

One of the ways to prevent heat-stroke, avoid natsu-bate (heat fatigue), and generally survive the fierce Japanese summer heat is to eat nutritious, stamina-boosting foods. Traditionally, foods beginning with "u" are said to be good: umeboshi (pickled plum), uri  (gourd), udon (wheat noodles - pictured left as a summer gift set known as ochūgen =お中元), uni (sea-urchin), umibudō (sea-grapes), and most famously unagi (eel, pictured right). In fact, there is a special day for eating eel known as doyō no ushi no hi (土用の丑の日) or "day of the ox" (ushi refers to the second sign of the Chinese zodiac, i.e. the ox). This year doyō no ushi day falls on July 25th, and 2017 also boasts a second "eel" day on August 6th (the reason why some years have one day and some two is rather complicated - see the link at the end of this paragraph). Although doyō for most Japanese means the height of summer and doyō no ushi day signifies eating eel around the end of July, there are in fact four doyō no ushi days throughout the year, one for each season, with the July date marking the count-down to autumn (in the old calendar): see here for a simple explanation and a table.

Multiple packs of eel kabayaki style lined up in a supermarket
Eel on display in a local supermarket on doyō no ushi no hi at ¥980 (£7/$9) a pack

Click to see on amazon
Eel may seem like a slimy and rather unappealing food (not helped by the infamous English cold jellied eel!) but when prepared kabayaki style - cut length-wise, skewered and dipped in sweet thick soy-sauce based tare sauce, and grilled - it is mouth-wateringly good (and also full of vitamin E and B plus omega-A oils). It is usually sprinkled with Japanese pepper (sanshō) and eaten on top of rice, a dish which is called an una-don (in the case of a regular bowl of rice) or an una-jū (when eaten in a fancy lacquer-ware box). And if you want a healthy pick-me-up between meals? My favourite are deep-fried eel bones (right), crunchy, salty, and one of the most more-ish snacks you'll ever find. Guaranteed to shake off the summer blues!