The Power of the Eel

What’s your favorite edible fish? Ask Americans and you will get around the same standard five: Tuna, Salmon, Catfish, Bass, Swordfish maybe even Talapia. Ask the same question in Japan and you can almost be sure that Eel will be high on the list.

What’s your favorite edible fish? Ask Americans and you will get around the same standard five: Tuna, Salmon, Catfish, Bass, Swordfish maybe even Talapia. Ask the same question in Japan and you can almost be sure that Eel will be high on the list.

Annually, Japan consumes up to 130,000 tons of eel. But it’s not just the flavor that draws Japanese to the Eel. This slippery creature has long been associated with stamina. What caught my eye while researching was that on the hottest day of summer, called Ushi no hi, many Japanese indulge in the tradition of eating the eel. As I suffered through some of the hottest days I have experienced here in NYC, perhaps what I should have been doing is indulge in some eel.

But why eat eel on a hot day? It can hardly be considered quenching. The old concept that the eel can share some of its energetic properties has been confirmed by recent nutritional science. Eel carries a beneficial arsenal of vitamins and proteins. And it makes sense that around the time when the heat and humidity is at its highest, one would need to take special care of their health.

Well since we are eating eel anyway, why not make it into a festival? Never ones to pass up a celebration or tradition, the Japanese have an official time of festivities around the hottest time of year to commence the eating of Eel, called Doyo no Ushi no Hi. The eels are grilled over hot charcoals, steamed to remove excess fat and then grilled a second time after being seasoned with a sweet sauce. Good unagi is crisp on the outside, tender on the inside and has a rich flavor similar to pate. Sounds good enough to almost make you forget about the heat.

The eel’s popularity in Japan goes way back. “Manyoshu,” a collection of poetry believed to have been published during the 8th century, includes a poem praising the eel as a way of preventing weight loss in summer. And although losing weight may be a goal of modern man, the goal of an 8th century Japanese person was to stay healthy and strong.

Unagi got a major boost with a nifty 18th century marketing ploy. Now, although we hate to see traditions looked at this way, this is how the legend goes:

A well-known Japanese naturalist named Gennai Hiraga told an eel dealer he could boost sales by putting up a sign urging customers to eat the creatures on “Doyo no Ushi Day” — a traditional summer benchmark denoting 18 days before the beginning of autumn, often the hottest day of the year. At the time Hiraga didn’t have any proof that eating the fish had any true benefit, but the sign was put up. Often sold to more wealthy patrons, soon word of Doyo no Ushi Day as the time to eat eel spread and common folks were saving up money to buy the more luxurious eel on this day.

Regardless of the reason, whether by tradition, marketing ploy or divine wisdom, this custom is celebrated every year late in July in Japan. And since the air conditioning bill is slowly rising at our place, I say we all meet for sushi and celebrate Doyo no Ushi Day with a plate full of Eel.

 

(Originally published in Muzosa Journal 7/21/06. Author retains all copyrights.)

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