Sunday, July 19, 2009
A slippery conundrum
by Larry Geller
It’s a tradition going back centuries. On this day in Japan it’s an imperative to eat unagi for lunch or dinner. It’s said to be “stamina ryori,” or health food, and doyo no ushi no hi is aimed to occur at about the hottest time of the summer in Japan. There may be more than one in a given year.
There are plenty of eel restaurants to accommodate the demand. Some lunch stands come to resemble a rush-hour Tokyo subway crush as people line up for their unagi-don (eels on rice) or kabayaki (broiled eels served in a lacquer box, pictured).
The cooking process involves steaming and grilling, producing a product that is just short of addictive. In Osaka, eels are grilled without steaming and served between two layers of rice, a dish called mamushi, which foreigners often confuse with the poisonous Japanese snake whose name is a homonym. Which style a person prefers is often a matter of which they were imprinted with as a child.
The sad truth is that the demand in modern Japan exceeds the local supply and so for this day, inferior imported eels crowd out the higher-quality domestic product too often. The expense-account crowd doesn’t have a problem, though. The finest (and most expensive) eel restaurants are reserved a year or more in advance, and this is assuming that you qualify to eat there, anyway. The un-connected need not even apply.
Buying frozen eels in Hawaii presents a similar problem. The Chinese import is cheaper at Don Quijote, but the Japanese eel is fatter and better prepared, but more costly. They also have tiny bottles of sauce to go with the eels, but for some reason don’t keep them nearby the freezer holding the eels.
Don Q is missing the boat by not publicizing the day, incidentally.
One story of the origins of doyo no ushi no hi is that business had not been going well for a certain eel vender due to the hot weather. So he sought out scholar Hiraga Gennai, perhaps one of history’s earliest marketing consultants. Gennai is said to have advised him to stick up a sign declaring the day as “eel day” with his name on it, and the rest is history. Other eel shops followed suit and the popularity of unagi soared.
The modern-day conundrum is that the wild eel population is in decline. The Monterrey Bay Aquarium has put eels on their “Avoid” list. Farmed eels are very problematic, with waste product issues and (because they eat other fish) depletion of wild fish populations is an issue also.
What to do? For now, we have cut out our eel habit completely, except on this day. If conscience overcomes the taste buds tonight, we may give it up entirely.