Have you ever been given someone something to eat, and been told “no, try it first, and then we will tell you what it is?” Then you are a very brave soul, especially if you were in college. I hope you survived the episode.
I’m guilty of this trick, especially when introducing my friends and co-workers to Sushi. Eel, especially freshwater Eel (or Unagi) is one of my favorite pieces of sushi. It has a much higher fat content than most fish, but it’s smooth flavor and texture make it a staple of most sushi trays and a lot of the better sushi rolls.
Unlike most sushi, Unagi (fresh water eel, the most common) is never served raw. That’s not because it would kill you or anything – the sushi afficinados reserve blowfish for that – but because you would absolutely hate it. Unagi has a fat layer in it that smells awful, and doesn’t taste all that great. Properly prepared eel is cooked to remove this fat layer, then steamed (to give the Eel it’s lighter texture) and then cooked again. During the second baking/broiling phase it is usually basted with Unagi sauce – a combination of soy sauce and other flavors that reduce and usually have a sweet and slightly syrupy taste. This is the same sauce that is often served on top of the Unagi.
Although unagi is relatively common at all Japanese restaurants, the way it is made and how it is cooked really show a good place from a great place. The best sushi restaurants in DC (you know who you are) use less sauce and have a cleaner taste. I’ve also had Unagi with baked sesame seeds, which is a very flavorful “desert” after a sushi dinner. And that is a recommended way to eat it, as eel sauce is stronger than most of the other things you are eating.
For those who are still finding their way through the sushi jungle, you will often find eel as part of more complex rolls. The favorites – according to my favorite sushi chef – are the rolls with crab and eel on the outside. My personal favorite is when the Unagi is combined with tuna and spice mayonnaise (spicy tuna rolls). The stronger flavor of the eel sauce is better matched by the heat of the spicy mayonnaise, and doesn’t drown out (sorry, but I couldn’t resist) the more delicate flavors of other fish.
And for those of you who don’t like sushi, or just won’t touch anything called “eel”, just remember this: it’s much tastier than chicken.