July 27 is Unagi no hi, or Unagi day! Unagi, or barbequed freshwater eel, is readily available all over Japan. Besides sushi, this is probably my favorite Japanese food. If you get a really good place that selects its eel well, and grills it over the coals just right it can be a fantastic meal. Often referred to as Kabayaki, the eel is deboned, filleted, and basted with a mixture of soy sauce, sugar, and sake before it is steamed and/or barbequed over an open flame. There are two styles of properly preparing unagi; Tokyo and Osaka. Probably more, but this is what I could find!
The major difference between them lies in Tokyo’s addition of steaming to the process. In Tokyo, the Unagi is barbecued, steamed, then brushed with sauce mixture, and then flamed broiled again. The steaming step removes excess fat, adds softness and a delicate to the eel. Osaka Style, on the other hand, consists of grilling the unagi over the open flame, basting in sauce, and repeating until the unagi reaches the perfect level of crispy char goodness. This style results in a stronger flavored, and supposedly more “masculine,” dish. In Nagoya, I am sure that both styles are probably available, but I have personally only seen the Osaka style used.
I personally favor the nagayaki style of eating Unagi, where the whole eel is grilled and served like a steak with rice, Japanese pickles, and unagi liver soup, but Nagoya people in general favor the Hitsumabushi style; which is what we will be talking about today.
Hitsumabushi is kind of like an unagi donburi, or eel bowl, dish, but the way it is eaten is a bit different than a standard donburi meal. Unagi donburi is usually simply widely sliced unagi pieces placed on a bed of rice, and with the exception of adding some crushed Japanese green pepper corn called sansho, a bit more sauce, or dried seaweed, it is eaten as is. This is also a great way to eat unagi, but Hitsumabushi takes this basic formula and adds a bit more to it.
Hitsumabushi is served in a large bowl of rice topped with more finely chopped unagi, with several other toppings and condiments. Generally, these will include green onions, dried seaweed, wasabi, and grated leeks, and a container of dashi, or fish stock soup. In addition to this, the setting will include pickled vegetables, and an empty bowl and rice scoop. A soup will also be included, generally the unagi liver soup mentioned earlier, but not always. Sometimes it is an extra, and if so I highly recommend you spring for it.
There are four steps to eating hitsumabushi
- To begin with, scoop out the unagi with some rice into the empty bowl and eat it as is; without adding anything further. (it is Ok to add some sansho here, that does not count!)
- After you finish this helping, take another, only this time; mix in half of the provided seasonings (the leek, wasabi, and nori).
- After you finish your second course (?), dish out the remaining unagi and rice (it is OK leave some over to eat however you like here later; there are no unagi police you know!) into the bowl, and add the remaining seasonings to it. Finally, pour the dashi provided you in the small pitcher over the top and mix it in.
- If there is anything left over, you can eat it in whichever style you prefer. I guess technically this is three steps with a clean-up fourth, but is it really that important? Some people like to divide this into four steps for this exact purpose; adjust your portions accordingly if you too want a round 2 on one of these steps!
The most famous place for unagi in Nagoya is here:
503 Gōdo, Atsuta-ku , 052-671-8686
Open: Tues– Sun 11.30am–2pm & 4.30–8.30pm
There’s a branch next to the southern entrance of Atsuta-jingū but the main branch is only a couple of blocks further south, and the traditional mansion style with tatami rooms has a better atmoshpere.
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