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Traditional Delicacy Unagi is Tasty Off Season!

TOKUSHIMA – Tokushima Prefecture may not be well-known for unagi (eel), but they serve such tasty unagi. These days, grilled unagi is an expensive cuisine in Japan. If you look for made-in-Japan unagi, even a lunch bowl of unagi over rice would cost 3,000-4,000 JPY (27-35 USD). Still, it’s worth trying if you stay in Japan. Some unagi restaurants handed down their special unagi baste made of soy sauce, mirin (sweet cooking rice wine) and sugar for generations, making it a traditional secret. The flakes of sweet grilled unagi are so soft that you sometimes forget to slow down when eating it. The rice under the fish absorbs the special baste, which forms a perfect combination with unagi. Until a couple of decades ago, foreigners were not crazy about unagi due to its snake-like shape and sliminess. In recent years, however, more foreigners are seen enjoying unagi.

It is said to take ten years for a person to become a full-fledged unagi cook who is masterful from the opening of the unagi body, to the skewering, to the beautiful grilling technique. Some historical records shows that the Japanese ate unagi in the Stone Age. However, the tasty unagi of today is only made possible by seasonings such as soy sauce and mirin, as well as the 18th century technique of opening the fish with a sharpened knife.

In summer in Japan, we have a traditional special day called “Doyo Ushi no Hi” when we are encouraged to eat unagi. This year the days fall on July 25th and August 6th. The price of unagi goes up on the running up to and including Doyo Ushi no Hi. If you are not too interested about the historical celebration, you might want to enjoy this delicacy in cold seasons. Unagi in fall or winter is also very good!

Photo by Eri Minouchi, text by Motomi Takahashi