Once tasted, the delicate flavor of eel (unagi), prepared according to the special ways of Japanese cuisine, will linger in your memory forever. Since the Edo period (1603-1867), eel has traditionally been eaten in the height of midsummer on the Day of the Ox (July 23); popular custom has it that anyone who eats eel on this day will have extra stamina to cope with the summer heat. This is a custom I follow to this day! But the true gourmet’s season for eel consumption is late fall to winter (the time of spawning), when eel are at their best, even tastier than usual.
There are many ways to serve unagi: the most popular is kabayaki, eel grilled in sauce, served separately from rice; if served on rice, it is called unaju. Or there is shirayaki, eel grilled without sauce, served with wasabi (horseradish) and soy sauce. A more unusual dish, unagi kamameshi, is the creation of Torisuzu, a chain of restaurants in Nagoya, where I lived for a number of years. It combines flavored rice and grilled eel with a tasty stock poured over the top, and wasabi and chopped green onions for an extra flourish. After tasting this dish just once, you’ll be a convert for life.
Be warned, this recipe needs constant attention – no running away from the stove while it’s cooking.
Buy the unagi sauce from a Japanese supermarket or supplier as it is virtually impossible for the home cook to make – in the kitchen at Torisuzu, a large vat of unagi bones, soy sauce, sugar, and mirin (sweet sake) is kept specially heated and cooking for a full three months before use. It’s also advisable to buy ready-grilled kabayaki eel (frozen if necessary), as grilling fresh eel is an intricate art unto itself.
- 3 cups short-grain Japanese white rice
- 4 ½ cups water
- ¾ cup unagi sauce
- 14 oz. kabayaki (grilled eel, thickly sliced), Look in Japanese supermarkets, they are usually sold in vacuumed sealed packages in the frozen section.
For the stock:
- 3 cups water
- 1 ½ teaspoons dashi (fish stock granules)
- 1 ½ teaspoons low-salt soy sauce
- 1 ½ teaspoons sake
- A pinch of salt
- ½ cup minced or finely chopped green onions
- Wasabi horseradish to taste
Wash the rice until the water runs clear. Drain and let sit for 30 minutes prior to cooking.
Place the rice and water in a heavy, deep, medium-sized saucepan with a well-fitting lid. Boil vigorously, uncovered, for 12 to 15 minutes, stirring occasionally. To keep from boiling over, tap the top of the pan a number of times with a spoon. Most of the water should disappear – if it evaporates too quickly, turn down the heat during the last few minutes of cooking to avoid burning.
Pour in the unagi sauce and mix well, then turn heat down to medium-simmer, cover the pan, and cook for 5 minutes. Add the eel slices, cover again, and simmer for a further 5 minutes. Turn off heat and let sit, covered, for 5 to 10 minutes.
Meanwhile, prepare the stock. Heat water and stir in the dashi until dissolved. Add soy sauce and sake and adjust seasoning.
To serve, mix the eel into the rice and serve in individual bowls. Pass the stock, green onion, and wasabi separately, allowing each person to mix in as they desire.