Let’s Talk Food: Freshwater eel, or ‘unagi’


Yanagawa City in the Fukuoka Prefecture in Japan is a 40-minute rail ride from the Tenjin Station in Fukuoka. The word “Yanagawa”translates to “city of water” and is sometimes referred to as the Venice of Japan.

Canals were built in the late 16th century during the construction of its castle to connect the rivers and to strengthen the defense of the castle. These canals have made Yanagawa famous for its canal boat tours. If you are ever in Yanagawa, $15 for the 70-minute boat ride is well worth the money and time. Historic buildings and homes built along the river and canal banks make the ride very interesting. The gardens of irises were in full bloom and absolutely gorgeous.

There are 13 bridges, some so low that we had to really bend down in order to pass, which are all part of the color of the tour. Our tour guide even told us that Yanagawa City was the hometown of Yoko Ono, but we were not sure if he was showing us her home because it got lost in translation.

Yanagawa is also famous for freshwater eel or “unagi.” At one time, unagi was a thriving industry, and many unagi restaurants opened up serving “seiromushi,” which is steamed rice topped with grilled unagi and topped with finely chopped egg omelet.

The restaurants are still thriving, but because of pollution, disease, and climate changes, there is only one farm raising unagi in Yanagawa City. The majority of unagi sold in the 20-plus restaurants comes from Miyazaki and Kagoshima.

We chose to eat at Wakamatsuya, which first opened in the Ansei Period, around 1854-1860. Our teishoku meal consisted of “uzaru kinosuimono,” or unagi liver soup, cucumber namasu with unagi, and the main dish was “seiromushi” of unagi. This dish was served in a lacquered steamer. The rice was mixed with the unagi sauce, grilled unagi on top, thinly sliced egg omelet and then steamed. Sansho pepper was on all tables and a standard spice to be sprinkled on the “seiromushi” or steamed unagi and rice.

Sansho pepper is not really a pepper but is Japanese prickly ash and is an essential spice for making shichimi.

We asked in our very broken Japanese where we could find live unagi and they directed us to go up a street, about half a mile to the wholesaler, Yamaguchi, who sells unagi to all the restaurants in the area. Unagi are placed in buckets with holes in the bottom. There’s water flowing from the ceiling that flows through each stack of buckets, allowing the live unagi to remain wet. It is interesting that unagi are able to live out of water. They close up their gill openings and are able to breathe out of water.

Unagi is a “must serve” in sushi bars and, unfortunately, its population has greatly been diminished and becoming endangered.

Even the present farm-raised unagi are captured from the wild. In addition, the adult unagi spawn in salt water, far from their fresh water habitat and then when they return, many of the rivers are polluted and uninhabitable. For this reason, The Monterey Seafood Watch has placed the fresh water eel on the avoid list.

What was interesting was the reaction of the man who took us on the boat tour through the canals. He spoke no English so understanding him was not easy as he used a long bamboo pole to steer and move the boat through the canals. As we entered the first bridge, I noticed something in the water that looked like a piece of floating rope. I asked what it was and the boat owner got so excited about seeing an unagi in the canal, he nearly crashed his boat against the wall of the bridge! He said it is now very rare to see an unagi in the water. There are lots of turtles, beautiful cranes flying around, but an unagi sighting was unheard of!

Small Bites

The popular unagi of Japan is the Japanese eel. However, the European and American eels are now being raised to replace the endangered Japanese eel.

Foodie Bites

Chef Edwin Goto of Village Burger in the Parker Ranch Shopping Center has been named one of the top 10 burger restaurants in the nation, according to TripAdvisor.com. Chef Goto opened his restaurant wanting to source out local products and has done a great job of doing just that. Village Burger’s Big Island Beef Burger and Kahua Ranch Wagyu Burger are just two of their most popular items of their menu. One reviewer wrote about Village Burger, “You really can taste the difference with fresh local beef. I am forever spoiled now that I know how a burger can taste.”

In this list of the 10 best burger restaurants, the two top both received 5 out of 5 points: Black Hill Burger and Bun Company in Custer, South Dakota, and Nic’s Grill in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma.

Congratulations Chef Goto! I have always been your fan since his days as executive chef at Koele Lodge in Lanai.

Please feel free to email me at audreywilson808@gmail.com if you have questions.

 

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