My A-Z of Japan is drawing to a close, but there are still a few letters left. This week, for U, I considered writing about the popular clothing store Uniqlo (ユニクロ). I also thought Ueno Zoo (上野動物園) might be a good topic. I could even have written about the tale of Urashima Taro (浦島 太郎), but I did that the other day. In the end, I decided…
U is for… Unagi!
Unagi (うなぎ) is the Japanese word for freshwater eels, especially the Japanese eel, Anguilla japonica. (Wikipedia) Having lived in Nagoya and Hamamatsu, both cities which are famous for unagi, I grew to consider it one of my favourite Japanese foods. Unagi is eaten in many different ways in Japan, but my absolute favourite is the Nagoya speciality – hitsumabushi.
Hitsumabushi is basically grilled eel on a bed of rice, but what makes it special is the way that it’s eaten. Or, rather, the ways. Hitsumabushi is famous for its “four ways of eating”. When you get the bowl, you should split it into quarters. Put the first quarter in your bowl, and eat it just as it is. Next, put the second quarter into your bowl and add the spices that are provided. The third section is eaten with broth, that will be given to you in a sort of teapot. Then, finally, you eat the last quarter in whichever way you liked best! Personally, I like the broth.
Hamamatsu’s most famous food is eel, due to the best eel in Japan coming from Lake Hamana. In fact, not only is eel used in savoury dishes, it’s used in sweet souvenirs, too.
This souvenir is called Unagi Pie (うなぎパイ), and there’s even a factory which you can go and visit.
It’s nice to see the food being made, and the cafe there has some great desserts!
Most places in Japan seem to have some sort of character or mascot. Hamamatsu’s is a bizarre little chap called Unagi Inu (ウナギイヌ) – Eel Dog:
I’m not exactly sure about the origins of Unagi Inu, but I heard that his dad was a dog and his mum was an eel. I’m not quite sure how that would work…
Anyway! Regular eel characters can be found all over Hamamatsu and Shizuoka, too. Usually you’ll spot one like this outside an eel restaurant:
Even if you can’t read Japanese and don’t see one of these eel statues, spotting an unagi restaurant is really easy. More often than not, the う (u) of “unagi” is made into an eel on the sign of the restaurant, as it has the shape of an eel.
When I first started exploring the world of Japanese food, I was actually a full-blown vegetarian. I soon started to eat fish so that I could enjoy sushi, but I admit I was hesitant to try other fruits of the sea, like octopus, squid and eel. I’m so glad I did try them, though, as I’ve discovered that eel in particular is absolutely delicious! If you visit Nagoya or anywhere in Shizuoka Prefecture, you simply have to try unagi!
Finally, I’ll leave you with a little light entertainment. This is the first time I ever heard the word “unagi”…