How to Cook Eel (Unagi), Eel Taste & More
Eels have a dark and snakelike appearance, with a taste similar to lobster, salmon or squid. It is naturally sweet and has a soft yet slightly firm texture providing a pleasant chewiness, depending on how it is cooked.
Eels pair well with strong flavors whilst retaining their original taste. They benefit from a variety of cooking methods. Boiling or steaming creates a deliciously soft and tender meat. However, grilling adds a little more chewiness but more sweetness and umami. Deep frying adds more crunch and bite to the eel, making it a fantastic dish with alcoholic beverages.
There are two main types of eel used for cooking: saltwater and freshwater eels. The skin and flesh of saltwater eels is quite firm; however, freshwater eels are much softer.
Eels have been consumed in many countries throughout the world for centuries. Jellied eels, served in Britain, date back to the 18th century, when they were high in supply and a cheap source of nutrition. Much of Europe consumes smoked eels as a delicacy.
Japan, however, is the biggest consumer of eels, eating around 70% of the global total. Due to overfishing and growing demand, eels have become endangered.
In 2008, European eels were listed as an endangered species, then in 2014, Japanese eels, known as unagi, were classified as endangered. But with a corresponding growth in demand, the price has rocketed.
Due to the low supply, a lot of eels eaten in Japan are imported from China and Taiwan. Commercial fishing is increasing to meet the demand, but there is now concern about whether this is sustainable. In January of 2018, a kilogram of baby eels cost a staggering $35,000.
Different Ways to Cook Eel
In Japan, a rice bowl topped with eel (also known as unagi don) is the most common eel dish. The preparation of eel is called kabayaki, where the fish is split down its back or belly, gutted and boned, butterflied, and cut into fillets. Finally, the fish is skewered, dipped in a soy sauce-based sauce and then grilled. There are two different styles of unagi don: kanto and kansai.
In Kanto-style cooking, the eel is slit down its back and butterflied so a lightly colored stripe of belly runs down each fillet. The eel is then cut into small pieces, skewered, and grilled without any seasoning. The eel is lightly grilled over charcoal and then steamed, making it extremely soft and tender. After steaming, it is then grilled once more whilst being basted with a special eel sauce. This style is called shiroyaki.
In Kansai-style cooking, the eel is slit down the belly and grilled over charcoal. As it grills, the eel is basted in a special sauce until the skin is crispy and the meat is tender. This style is called nabayaki.
Both styles use the same ingredients. However, Kanto-style focuses on the tenderness of the eel while Kansai-style focuses on the crispiness of the skin and is stronger in flavor due to the longer grilling time. After the eel is cooked, it is simply placed on a bed of rice and covered with more sauce.
At many sushi restaurants in Japan, eel sushi is very popular. Grilled eel is placed onto vineyard rice and sometimes wrapped in nori (seaweed) to make nigiri sushi. Usually, sushi is accompanied with soy sauce and wasabi. However, for eel, a special soy sauce-based sauce is brushed on top.
Eel is filleted and cut into bite-sized pieces. Next, it is placed in a tempura-battered of flour, eggs, and water and deep-fried at 170-180 °C. Tempura is garnished with sea salt, a squeeze of lemon, and a special soy sauce-based sauce. You can also enjoy it with a side of crunchy tempura vegetables.
In Korean cuisine, grilled eel is a popular dish and known as jangeo-gui. The eels are cut into large pieces before being grilled.
As the eel grills, it is brushed with a gochujang-based marinade. Alternatively, the eel may be marinated in the sauce beforehand and then grilled, whilst basting with the sauce. Jangeo-gui is usually served with sliced ginger and perilla leaves.
Historically, eels were a cheap, nutritious, and plentiful food source in London. In the 18th century, eels were boiled in a spiced stock, that was cooled and set into a jelly. The jellied eels are often eaten with savory pies, mashed potatoes, and a parsley sauce made with the stock called liquor.
Smoked eels are common throughout much of Europe, including Sweden, the Netherlands, and Germany.
The eels are gutted and cleaned before being smoked. In some cases, the eels are brined before smoking to add further flavor. The eel becomes succulent with a light, sweet, and subtle smoky flavor. It’s considered a delicacy in many countries so it can be expensive. Smoked eels are perfect for salads, served on toast, or as a general replacement for mackerel.