Kitchen Culture

tasty tidbits from the old-fashioned Japanese Kitchen


Restaurants in Japan often announce their specialty on chōchin  lanterns or noren curtains hung at the entrance. Designs vary but most unagi restaurant signs incorporate the graceful curve of a slithery eel to form the "U" of the word UNAGI


doyō ushi no hi

In Japan, the first mention of beating the heat by eating eel was in the Manyoshu, an 8th century collection of poems. However, the current custom of eating eel on a specific day began during the Edo period. Ushi no hi (literally "ox day”) refers to a cycle of 12 animal names assigned to time periods, both years (the next Year of the Ox will be 2021) as well as days within each year. Many Asian cultures use these names. Doyō refers to the 18-day time period prior to a change of seasons. There is a doyō period before the onset of winter, spring, summer, and autumn. It is this latter one that most Japanese are familiar with, since it is on the ox day of this pre-autumn doyō, that eel-eating is thought to effectively restore stamina sapped by summer heat.

This year (2019) the "pre-autumn" (doyō) "ox day" (ushi no hi)  falls on Saturday, JULY 27.
HIRAGA Gennai (1726-1779)

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. 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!
     Left: Iwashi (sardines) kabayaki-style
     Right: Real eel (unagi) kabayaki

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


COMPARE nutritional profiles for Glaze-Grilled KABAYAKI (per 100 gr/3.5 ounces):

IWASHI sardines                              UNAGI eels:

EPA=1381; DHA=1136                                   EPA=742; DHA=1332
Calories 169                                                  Calories 255
Protein 19.2                                                   Protein 17.1
Potassium 270mg                                          Potassium 230mg
Phosphorus 230mg                                        Phosphorus 260mg