The Endangered Appeal of Japanese EelCulture Lifestyle
A Manga for Eel-Lovers
Nothing quite triggers the appetite like the sweet fragrant aroma of grilled unagi (eel). It is a dish that Japanese people have traditionally enjoyed on the midsummer Day of the Ox as a way to ward off summer lethargy. But in fact the peak season for catching eel is from autumn to winter. In recent years, the price of eel has really shot up, so anyone would be jealous to hear of someone able to enjoy eel at restaurants year-round. “What a luxurious life!” they might think.
But Fujioka Shōtarō, the young owner of a kimono shop, is one such person. During free moments at work, he pops out to enjoy a serving of grilled eel somewhere. When he took his fiancée out on a date, it was also to an eel restaurant. The relationship ended up with her asking him why he didn’t just marry an eel instead of her. This young bon-vivant is fictional, however. He is the main character of Roswell Hosoki’s manga series U, which ran for two years in Kōdansha’s Weekly Morning magazine, starting in 2010. The manga, which centers on this eel-craving young man, still has a lot of diehard fans today. And reading it is sure to whet your appetite.
The challenge for Roswell in U was to use the odor-less, black-and-white pages of manga to depict eel dishes in a way that make readers want to go out and eat them.
“For the manga series,” Roswell explains, “I had to travel all over Japan to research the subject. I sampled food at the local eel restaurants and posed questions to patrons and customers as well as those involved in cultivating eel. This process of research really opened my eyes to just how interesting and profound this food culture is, and the same is true of the eels themselves as living creatures.”
Roswell is aware of the difficult situation facing Japanese eels in terms of their declining population, but he also firmly hopes that Japan will be able to somehow carry on its eel culinary tradition.
A Tradition from the Edo Period
The term “Edomae” these days brings to mind a traditional style of sushi, but it used to refer to eel. Up to around the start of World War II, some 300 tons of eel were caught in Tokyo Bay every year.(*1)
“Unagi was one of the typical dishes of the Edo period (1603–1868), along with sushi and soba noodles,” Roswell notes. “The technique of splitting and skewering and then broiling and basting eel with a sweet sauce was perfected during that period and has changed little over the years since then. Many of today’s eel shops employ cooking methods handed down from generation to generation, offering customers the same flavor that previous generations enjoyed. Since the special basting sauce and cooking methods have to be handed down, naturally many of the restaurants that specialize in eel have been around for many years.”
Eel stocks today are on the verge of a crisis situation mainly due to the overfishing of “glass eels,” which are the larval fish that are used for eel farming. In June 2014, the International Union for Conservation of Nature added the Japanese eel to its Red List of endangered species. The meagre catches of glass eels these past few years have led prices to continually rise, forcing a number of long-established eel restaurants to go out of business.
“The price rise is unavoidable but eel restaurants are doing whatever they can to avoid raising prices for their customers,” Roswell points out. “And when there is a price rise it is accompanied with a notice expressing their sincerest apologies. The establishments face a dilemma where they may lose customers if the prices go too high, but will not be able to carry on business if prices are too cheap.”
“I have also interviewed those involved in eel aquaculture, and they are facing an even more difficult situation. Some have gone out of business, and others have had to scale back their operations. Like the restaurants, the aquaculturists also specialize in eel, so the inability to catch glass eels is a matter of life or death for them.”
Regional Styles of Eel Cuisine
From the time he started his manga series U, Roswell traveled to local areas all over Japan to sample eel, stretching from Fukuoka in the west of Japan all the way to Aomori in the north. Along with the typical eel dishes over rice, such as unadon or unajū, varieties of eel cuisine include the shirayaki style of grilling without adding sauce as well as variations like unagizake (eel in heated sake), unahamu (a ham-like dish made out of eel), and umaki (rolled eel omelette). But at the heart of it all is the kabayaki style of grilled eel dipped in sauce.
“There is a saying that when it comes to kabayaki it takes three years to master skewering the eel, eight years to split the eel, and a lifetime to master grilling it. Acquiring the needed skills, in short, takes a very long time, and the flavor of the grilled eel differs from shop to shop. You can get a real sense of the amazing skills required if you visit the eel restaurant in Tokyo’s Ikebukuro district where the counter overlooks the grill.
Some restaurants wait until a customer arrives to split, skewer, and grill the eel. And Roswell says that the technique of a particular establishment comes down to how smoothly and efficiently they can handle that process.
Along with the flavor varying depending on who is doing the grilling, there are also important regional differences in grilling style. In the Kantō region, for instance, the eel is grilled without sauce, then steamed in a basket before it is grilled again while adding sauce. The result is a soft and fluffy texture. But the Kansai region follows the jiyaki style that skips the steaming stage, creating a crispier eel. The two regions also differ in the way that the eel is split, with Kantō slicing along the back and Kansai along the belly. One other difference is that in Kantō the eel is skewered and grilled right away after it is cut into pieces following the split and removal of the head; whereas in Kansai the head is left on for a while after the eels are skewered and later grilled together, along with the tail end of the eels.
Splurge on an Authentic Eel Experience
There are also variations in the characteristics of “natural” eels depending on their natural environment, as Roswell points out:
“Eels that are raised on lakes, such as Lake Biwa, tend to grow to a large size. Natural eels are only found up as far north as Aomori Prefecture because they are unable to cross the Tsugaru Strait separating Honshū from Hokkaidō. The eels caught in Lake Ogawara in the the Shimokita Peninsula of Aomori Prefecture tend to be particularly large and filling, since the cold climate results in them having more fat. In contrast, the eels that live in the swift currents of the Shimanto River in Kōchi Prefecture do not tend to grow to a very large size. This is related to the fact that their diet centers on freshwater shrimp, which also gives them their distinctive flavor.”
The manga series focuses not only on fresh eel consumed at specialty restaurants, but also includes episodes of characters enjoying eel served at “beef bowl” restaurant chains or available at convenience stores and supermarkets. But the poor harvests of glass eels these days has apparently led to a change in Roswell’s outlook, as he wonders whether his carefree attitude to eel consumption up to now is still appropriate.
“I was shocked by how expensive eel has become even in the case of box lunches at convenience stores, eel over rice served at beef-bowl chains, or eel sold at supermarkets. Around last summer, eel was selling for around ¥2,000 a serving at supermarkets. And at beef-bowl restaurants, eel over rice costs around ¥800, as compared to just ¥300 for beef over rice. At convenience stores as well, a boxed lunch of eel is around ¥700 or ¥800 for Chinese eel and over ¥1,000 for Japanese eel. Lately I’ve begun to think that if consumers are willing to pay that much, it would be better to splurge a bit more to eat at a proper eel restaurant, which might also help check the decline in eel harvests.”
Not Just a Summer Dish
Japan is said to account for around 70% of the world’s eel consumption. Japan, China, South Korea, and Taiwan are the four places worldwide where eel is now being cultivated. In May 2014, the four reached an agreement to limit the amount of glass eels caught for cultivation purposes, which came into effect in November. In Japan, eel cultivators are obliged under the agreement to report on the quantity of eel produced and the amount of eel shipped to retailers.
“This sort of initiative to safeguard resources on an international scale is a must,” Roswell says. He insists that, despite the difficult situation today, customers should patronize specialty eel restaurants a few times a year, rather than eating cheaper eel, as a way to assist the eel industry and even help preserve eel resources.
“It’s only at the peak of summer in Japan that eel restaurants are in the media spotlight in Japan,” Roswell observes. “But right after that they basically fall out of sight. The eel industry is trying to showcase the fact that eel is not simply a dish to be enjoyed during summer. In fact, there is no particular time of the year that eels produced by aquaculture are in or out of season, and natural eels are at their nutritional best in the period from autumn until early winter.”
Tips on Enjoying Eel
We asked Roswell if he might have any pointers for those who take up his suggestion to splurge a bit by eating out at an eel restaurant a few times a year.
“The key point is to enjoy the eel right away before it cools down. There is usually a bit of a wait for the eel to be served because it takes some time to grill it, but these days more and more eel restaurants are offering customers a selection of outstanding sake brands served along with small dishes made from eel. After enjoying those offerings at a leisurely pace, you can dig into the main course of eel over rice.”
Every year the Japan Prestige Sake Association, an organization made up of sake brewers, wholesalers, and retailers, has a panel of experts, including Roswell, choose three sake brands that are best suited to eel. The contest involves tasting brands along with grilled eel. And in 2014, Nishinoseki hand-made pure rice sake (tezukuri junmai-shu), brewed in Ōita Prefecture, captured top place for the ninth consecutive year.
Another annual eel-related event that Roswell mentions takes place in Kyoto’s Mishima shrine on October 26, involving prayers for the eels eaten during the year. This small shrine, which has been around since the Heian period (794–1185), honors the spirit of eels. “Those involved in the eel industry in western Japan make up the bulk of the festival’s participants,” Roswell says. “Apparently, the head priests who have served at the shrine and their family members have made a point over the years of not eating eel.”
After attending the annual ceremony in Kyoto to pay his respects to all the eel he gulped down during the year, Roswell makes his way to an eel restaurant in the city, where he can enjoy crispy eel grilled in the Kansai style that is not available in Tokyo.
(Article based on an October 2014 interview in Japanese; banner photograph of eel grilled in the Edo “kabayaki” style courtesy of the restaurant Maekawa and the photographer Katō Takemi.)
Eels: Mass Consumption Threatens the Future of a Favorite Japanese Food
While Japanese consumers feast on cheap imported eels, stocks of the fish are shrinking fast. It is up to Japan to take proper measures to conserve this resource.
(*1) ^ According to the Tokyo Metropolitan Islands Area Research and Development Center of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries.