As any Japanese person what is the representative dish for the hottest days of summer, and the chances are they'll answer unagi 'eel', though, whisper this quietly, true eel connoisseurs will tell you that they are at their very finest in the autumn. Few people believe that. If you walk down any shotengai covered shopping arcade in the months of July and August, that beguiling fabulous aroma can only be one thing: the roasting of eel.
The suggested origin of the word unagi is splendidly improbable. It could come from a combination of the ‘u’ of u-sho, meaning cormorant fisherman, and nangi meaning difficult, in the sense of difficult to catch, ie, slippery. Tsukiji fish market dealers, however, provide a more mundane, probably more plausible, explanation, believing it comes from muna-gi meaning ‘chest-yellow’ as the fish has a yellow belly during the mating season.
Frequently the main subject of Rakugo comic storytelling, eel is most auspiciously eaten during the dog days of summer, especially on Doyo no Ushi no Hi, the day corresponding to the bull in the Chinese zodiac, when it is believed to convey vigor and vitality. Eels are sliced down the back sebiraki in Kanto, and down the belly harabiraki in Kansai.
Common wisdom has it that this is because the samurai culture of Tokyo and the surrounding Edo plain was averse to anything that reminded them of seppuku ritual suicide, also known as harakiri which translates directly as 'stomach slashing'; on the other hand the mercantile minded folks of Osaka didn't mind it at all.
There's also a regional difference in how the eel is cooked. In Western Japan it is pre-grilled and steamed, whereas in Kansai it is just directly grilled on the skewer. The former results in a light, fluffier taste, whilst the latter gives a smoky chewiness. Both are excellent.
A popular dish is the charcoal-grilled unagi no kabayaki, which takes its name from its colour, reminiscent of the kaba birch tree, and is served in a teriyaki sauce. It is also often served as a donburi dish, una-don grilled eel on rice.
Let's hope this continues to be so. Japan is currently facing a serious eel crisis. Domestic catches are falling so dramatically that there is a genuine worry about the industry's sustainability, and the very survival of unagi-ya specialist restaurants.
As I type this one hot August morning, there is a debate going on about the possibility of a moratorium on fishing, and, horror of horrors, replacing unagi-no-kabayaki with iwashi-no-kabayaki: charcoal grilled sardines. That's something like asking a Frenchman to replace his Coquilles St Jacques scallops with, well, sardines.
I jest a little, but it is indeed a serious problem. Let's hope the eel come back in numbers. If we have to eat sardines for a while, so be it.
Dojo-jiru loach at Komagata Dozeu in Asakusa, Tokyo
The eel-like dojo loach is actually related to carp. Found in rivers and lakes in Honshu, Shikoku, and Kyushu, especially the latter’s Yanagawa, its numbers are also alas declining. Popular in Tokyo, it is usually served as nabemono in Yanagawa-nabe, dojo-jiru loach soup, as nimono or yakimono. It is the main dish served in Tokyo's Asakusa district at the famous Komagata Dozeu restaurant, who have been serving it up for 200 years.