Eel, better known as unagi on sushi menus, is usually the only cooked fish included in a standard sushi set. Since raw eel is not particularly appetizing, decades have been spent in perfecting the preparation and taste of eel as a brand of sushi meat. Today, eel as sushi is characterized by its soft, flaky texture and barbecue-like marinade, all placed on a small ball of white rice as with other sushi meats. The sauce is actually made from eel trimmings, soy sauce, sugar and sake. This is presumably to enhance the taste of cooked eel meat, which, left plain, could still experience the unpleasant odor of eel fat that lines the bottom of the meat.
Eel was not always considered a sushi meat of choice. In its raw form, it is oily and pungent and generally not desirable for consumption. During the Edo rule in Japan (1603-1868), eel was an abundant food source taken from the Tokyo waters. It was sold and consumed in the same manner as fast-food is today, despite the difficulty in its preparation. In the Edo period, eel had to be prepared by a chef who specialized only in eel; regular sushi chefs didn’t dare attempt preparing and serving it themselves and usually called on local experts to have it done. Some of this tradition still exists today in parts of Japan.
There is a three-fold process to cooking eel that requires time and a discerning nose to identify when the eel has been fully rid of the fat that makes it otherwise wholly unappetizing. First, the marinade must be created by taking the bones of the eel and pan-fried until brown. Onions, vinegar, rice wine, soy sauce and sugar are added to round out the flavoring. The marinade is complete once a syrupy liquid has formed and is then put through a sieve to separate the hard bits from the sauce.
The sauce is then basted onto the raw eel fillet and grilled until the excess fat has nearly disappeared from the bottom of the skin. Then it is steamed to make the meat fluffy and to drain whatever fat may be left. After steaming, the eel is placed back on the grill and basted several times over the fire with the marinade to create a sticky, flaky texture on the outside. When the right level of texture has been achieved, it is left to slightly cool and then sliced into smaller pieces to be placed on a small ball of white rice and tied together with a ribbon of seaweed. The final product of unagi should be soft, fluffy and flaky with a tangy sweet flavor extending from the sauce. It should also maintain a small layer of fat, even after the grilling and steaming, to enhance the smooth texture of the eel. Some places will also add sansho, a crushed Japanese peppercorn, on top to further amplify the taste of the eel meat.
Unagi has become a popular staple in sushi and offers a tasty, non-raw option for beginners or for those who simply prefer cooked sushi. With its savory taste and sweet sauce, eel is a must for any sushi platter.