Kitchen Culture

tasty tidbits from the old-fashioned Japanese Kitchen

The sign above says:
UNAGI (Japanese eel)


Restaurants in Japan often announce their specialty by hanging a fluttering hata (flag, pictured left) or noren (short curtain, pictured below) just outside their entrance.

Designs vary but most incorporate the graceful curve of a slithery eel to form the syllable "U."

In Japan, the first mention of beating the heat by eating eel was in the Manyoshu, a collection of 8th century poems. The current custom, however, of consuming eel specifically on doyō ushi no hi probably began during the Edo period. One story has it that Hiraga Gennai, a playwright, natural scientist, and Edison-like inventor (in Japan, he is credited with making a hand operated generator and a thermometer), was responsible.
HIRAGA Gennai (1726-1779)
Restaurants often ask famous customers to write a few words of praise that can be displayed. Perhaps in jest, Hiraga wrote the restaurant's excellent eel had restored his waning energy that day -- it just happened to be doyō ushi no hi. His comment at the time certainly energized the mid-summer eel fishing industry!

doyō ushi no hi

Days calculated by the old-fashioned lunar-based koyomi, change each year. In 2017, there are TWO "pre-autumn" (doyō) "ox day" (ushi no hi) days. The first falls on JULY 25 and the second on August 6. Consumers eagerly look forward to special doyō ushi no hi promotions at department store food halls, supermarkets, and local shops.

Iwashi (sardines) Kabayaki-style

Since 2014, true unagi (Anguilla japonica) has been placed on the Red List of threatened species. Efforts are being made to remedy the situation but a combination of the difficulty of farming (not enough is yet known about the lifestyle of the freshwater fish to breed them successfully in captivity) and the sporadic nature of the commercial market for the product (a huge peak at mid-summer and nearly zero sales throughout the year) makes it especially challenging.

To find out more about current conservation initiatives and monitoring of the situation, I refer you to the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s webpage:


Take delicious culinary conservation action... prepare SARDINES INSTEAD!