Grilled as you like it

Unagi-don July 31, 2008

Unagi donburi with sansho, sesame, and kinome (foreground) and homemade pickles (background)

Last Thursday was doyo no ushi no hi, or the midsummer day of the ox. It’s said in Japan that eating eel can revive you when you’re suffering from tiredness due to the heat of midsummer. So on doyo no ushi no hi it is traditional to eat eel in Japan. Unfortunately, this summer domestic eel prices have been soaring, and as a result, one unscrupulous importer was caught importing Chinese eels and trying to pass them off as Japanese ones. After last year’s contaminated gyoza scandal, many Japanese people are wary of Chinese imports and would prefer to buy domestic eels instead. As a result, prices are climbing ever higher. This year, unusually, there are two doyo no ushi no hi, with the second one falling on August 5th, so if you didn’t have your eel last week, there’s still a chance to have them next week.

unagi-flag2While it may have been difficult to get eels last Thurday (I don’t know for sure because I already had plans for dinner), I had no problem finding unagi kabayaki, or grilled, sweet sauce-basted eels, at my market on Monday. They were still on special from the previous week, so I bought two to compare-one from Kagoshima Prefecture and another from Aichi Prefecture. Two unagi was enough for dinner that night and Alex’s lunch the next day too.

When I got home, first I chopped up some vegetables and put them into my new shokutaku tsukemono no ki (tabletop pickling pot) and salt rubbed some more to make nuka-zuke. I’ll post some more about my pickling adventures later. After I had gotten my vegetables started pickling, I made a batch of chawan mushi. I had bought a steamer from Amazon.co.jp that works great as a rack for steaming and for canning. I followed the same basic recipe for chawan mushi that I used before. For filling I went with a combination of shelled edamame, carrots (cut into plum-blossoms), mitsuba, shiitake, and fresh corn. I think the fresh corn didn’t make a great filling for the chawan mushi, so I’ll stick with the traditional slice of kamaboko instead next time. The chawan mushi custard came out really smooth and the flavor was just right. Using a steamer was a huge improvement over a water-bath in the oven.

Next, I grilled a few more ears of corn in my fish broiler before finally grilling the eel (also in the fish broiler). I flipped the eel a few times to be sure that both sides were heated and nicely crisped before I chopped them in half and put them in a donburi with rice. I finished the dish with the sauce that came with the eel, crushed sansho, and a spring of kinome from my balcony garden. The citrusy spice of the sansho and kinome contrast nicely with the sweetness of the unagi’s sauce and so they are a traditional accompaniment with unagi kabayaki. If your eel doesn’t come with it’s own sauce use a simple homemade teriyaki instead (2 parts soy, 1 to 2 parts sugar, and 1 part mirin or sake, boiled until slightly thickened).

So our finished dinner was unagi donburi (grilled eel on a bowl of rice), salt-pickled cabbage and cucumber nuka-zuke, vegetable chawan mushi, and grilled corn. I would say it’s one of the best “homemade” dinners that I’ve made since we’ve been here in Japan. I say “homemade” since the eel was pre-cooked so all I had to do was reheat it and crisp it up in the broiler.

As for the verdict on our two different eels… I liked the tender texture of the Aichi Prefecture unagi, while Alex preferred the firmer Kagoshima Prefecture unagi. I guess there are different strokes for different folks.

Unagi Donburi

1 unagi kabayaki fillet (grilled, sauce-basted eel)
steamed rice
teriyaki sauce
sansho kosho (crushed sansho berries)
1 or two sprigs kinome (leaves of the sansho plant, optional)
crushed toasted sesame seeds, optional

Broil the unagi fillet until it is heated through and both sides are as browned and crispy as you like. Cut the unagi to fit in your bowl (or cut in half if you’re sharing). Fill your bowl with steamed rice, sprinkle crushed toasted sesame seeds on the rice if you like. Place the unagi fillet, skin side down, on top of the rice. Drizzle the unagi with teriyaki sauce and sprinkle with a generous amount of sansho kosho. Finally top with a sprig of kinome.

Chawan Mushi

4 large eggs
600 ml dashi
1 tablespoon usukuchi shoyu (light soy sauce)
1 tablespoon mirin
1/2 teaspoon salt (only if serving chilled)
5 or 10 slices carrot, rounds or cut into flower shapes if you want to get fancy
2 or 3 shiitake mushrooms, stems removed, cut into 10 slices
handful of edamame (green soybeans), shells removed
5 slices kamaboko (steamed fish cake)
5 sprigs mitsuba leaves

Divide the filling ingredients between your five teacups.

Beat the eggs in a large bowl. If the dashi is hot, add a little bit to the eggs and beat to temper the eggs. Then add the rest of the dashi, mirin, and usukuchi shoyu and beat well. Finally, strain the egg mixture and pour into the cups so that they are filled evenly.

Place the cups in a steamer and cover. If you line the inside of your steamer’s lid with a cloth or towel, it will prevent condensation from dripping onto your custards. Steam for 8 to 10 minutes. The custards are finished when clear juice is visible when they are cut with a sharp knife.

If you don’t have a steamer, you can place them in a water bath and bake for 25 minutes at 160 degrees Celsius. Cover with aluminum foil to prevent the tops from browning.


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