Eel: Japan's Beat-The-Heat Secret


Photo by David Nakamura

Barbequed eel filet with a sweet soy sauce over rice--known as kabayaki --is the most common way the meal is prepared, but Juro and Tomoko ordered a sampling of dishes to initiate me. Up first: fried eel bones.

I never thought eel even had bones, which shows the depths of my ignorance, nor did I ever expect to actually like eating them. But I did. Thin and delicate, they were crispy and had the salty, seafood flavor of shrimp chips. I could almost--but not quite--envision opening a bag of them on a football Sunday in the fall while setting in to watch my beloved Redskins.

Next up was pickled eel with vegetables, which brought forth that rich texture that I recalled from the sushi. But the real treats were the next two dishes: barbequed eel wedged into a rectangle of tamago (a sweet egg omelet) and eel and vegetables wrapped with tofu skin and deep fried.

Juro could hardly contain his enthusiasm. I'm not sure how to express the sounds of someone moaning in contentedness; "mmm, mmm" doesn't quite do it justice. Though he grew up in Japan, Juro said he never liked unagi as a kid - and neither did Tomoko, whose parents owned a restaurant.

"I didn't like it until I was about 18--got my driver's license and started eating eel," Juro said.

The Japanese can be very particular about the quality of their eel, he explained. In past summers, including last year, there have been national scandals in which companies import eel from--gasp!--China, then try to pass it off as a home-grown product. Some restaurants sign private distribution deals with renowned Japanese eel farms--the most famous is Hamamatsu--which raise freshwater eel. (There is also saltwater eel called anago , but that is less popular).

Last year, a company marketed an eel drink , but Tomoko said people in her office weren't impressed after they were sent a sample pack.

Finally, we were served a finishing course of sweet kabayaki , as well as shirayaki , a filet which is dipped in soy sauce with freshly grated wasabi . Eel done right can be pricey, and the meal, along with a couple drinks apiece, cost each of us about $63.

I was more than a little surprised that I had eaten so much unagi--and enjoyed it as much as I did. As we left the restaurant and made our way back into the heart of Shibuya, the sun had set and a breeze had cooled the evening. Whether it was the power of the eel or plain old Mother Nature, I couldn't be sure.

Ichinoya is at 20-22 Shinsen-cho, Shibuya-ku, Tokyo 150-0045. Phone: 03-5459-6862


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David Nakamura is a staff writer for The Washington Post who believes that safe tap water is an important ingredient for any city that aspires to food supremacy. More

David Nakamura is a staff writer for The Washington Post who missed authentic Japanese food so much that he took a year off to escape to Tokyo on an international affairs fellowship from the Council on Foreign Relations. He has written about politics, education, sports and, every now and then, Japanese food for the Post. He headed a team of reporters that was awarded the 2005 Selden Ring Award for investigative reporting after exposing excessive levels of lead contamination in the District of Columbia's drinking water and the government's failure to notify the public. His general philosophy is that safe tap water is an important ingredient for any city that aspires to food supremacy.

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