Edo Eel and the Start of a Summer TraditionHistory Food and Drink Culture
A Hearty Meal of Eel
The big four foods of the Edo period (1603–1868) are said to be soba, sushi, tempura, and unagi (freshwater eel). The last of these was served in a very different style compared with today, and varied in the east and west of Japan.
In Morisada mankō (Morisada’s Sketches) by the writer Kitagawa Morisada, he includes a picture—see the top of the article—showing eel on rice, as was typically served in Edo from the 1830s to the 1860s. It sells for 200 mon—taking 1 mon as about the same as ¥12, this would be ¥2,400, or very similar to current prices.
As Morisada describes it, on top of the rice there are five or six pieces of eel around 9 centimeters long each, and then a further layer of rice with a topping of six or seven small eels. A dozen or so morsels of unagi made for a hearty meal.
Street vendors called botefuri sold only kabayaki eel, which had been grilled and dipped in sauce. They carried them using a yoke on their shoulders, with the fish and other ingredients in boxes attached to cords on both sides. When stopped by a customer, the botefuri would take out an eel from the box and skewer and grill it on the spot.
In Kyoto and Osaka, one skewer of eel sold by vendors would go for 6 mon (¥72), but in Edo the price was 16 mon (¥192). These fast-food prices were much more affordable than those for meals in restaurants. The difference in cost between the cities was due to the fact that in Edo, vendors performed extra work to remove the large bones, while in western Japan, eel was sold with the bones still in.
There is an open-air eel stall in the woodblock print Jōrurimachi hanka no zu (Flourishing Business in Balladtown) by Utagawa Hiroshige. A couple grills unagi, while a woman of the neighborhood looks on, carrying a tray. Although there is no price on display, as fare aimed at the common people of the city, it probably cost about the same as that sold by vendors.
A Trusted Brand
In the Edo period, unagi were broadly divided into those classed as Edomae and those from elsewhere. These latter were also called tabiunagi, or “traveling eel,” and were considered lower status. Eel became hugely popular in Edo from around the middle of the eighteenth century, and the local variety established itself as a trusted brand.
While there is no firm definition, all fish and seafood caught in Tokyo Bay is now generally called Edomae. The term Edomae, however, originally referred to the sea in front of Edo Castle (now Tokyo’s Imperial Palace), along a line connecting Haneda to where the mouth of the Edogawa river used to be (now to the east of Tokyo Disney Resort). At the time, an inlet came right up to the castle, so catches of fresh fish went immediately to the tables of the shōgun’s family and samurai, and seafood eaten throughout the city. The Japanese eel, which now faces the threat of extinction, was once brought ashore in this area, where residential tower blocks cluster today.
In Shokunin-zukushi ekotoba (Illustrated Story of Craftsmen), published in 1805, there is a picture of an eel restaurant with a sign advertising Edomae grilled eel. “We don’t have any tabiunagi. It’s all Edomae,” a woman informs customers with a self-satisfied air.
We do not actually know how much of a difference in quality there was between the two types of eel.
One theory suggests that eels were cut open along the belly in a style known as harabiraki in Kyoto and Osaka, but this seemed inauspiciously close to the seppuku method of suicide for Edo, a city of samurai, so the sebiraki style of splitting the back developed there. However, another hypothesis is that sebiraki came first in both east and west, but harabiraki was introduced later as more suited to the rich grilled eel cuisine that evolved from Kyoto. Incidentally, it was not until the Meiji era (1868–1912) that unagi was steamed before being grilled, so this is a difference between the eel cuisine of the Edo period and today.
The biggest variation in east and west came in the seasoning. Morisada’s Sketches describes how Edo people mixed soy sauce with mirin (sweet sake) for a full-flavored sauce. In Kyoto and Osaka, mirin was replaced by shirozake, which is made by adding shōchū or mirin to kōji mold and fermenting. Combined with a lighter soy sauce, it made for a lighter and sweeter blend than that in Edo.
Fastidious Restaurant Owners
Restaurants that sold high-end eel were particular about who they served. Morisada describes how renowned establishments like Fukagawaya in Edo and Torihisa in Osaka would not easily welcome new customers, no matter how rich they were.
If they could not procure eel that met their standards, they would also close their doors for several days. Such exacting restaurant owners are not a recent phenomenon, and have been around for centuries.
Harukiya Zenbei, another famous restaurant, is thought by some to have instigated the long-lasting tradition of eating eel on doyō no ushi no hi. The day of the ox during the 18 days preceding the beginning of autumn is a date in the traditional calendar that occurs once or twice in late July or early August.
In Edo kaimono hitori annai (A Personal Guide to Shopping in Edo), published in 1824, Harukiya Zenbei is credited with starting the tradition. The collection of essays Meiwashi also states that it began around the 1770s or 1780s, which is consistent with this idea.
As to why the date was thought of as propitious for unagi, a folk tradition has it that eating food beginning with u on ushi no hi helps in overcoming the heat of summer. There is a well-known story that polymath Hiraga Gennai suggested the idea to a restaurant owner as a way of boosting sales.
There is no firm evidence as to which was the originator, however, and Morisada’s Sketches does not touch on the tradition at all.
(Originally published in Japanese on November 15, 2020. Banner illustration: Eel on rice, as typically served in Edo. From Morisada mankō (Morisada’s Sketches). Courtesy the National Diet Library.)