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 2018 there are two "pre-autumn" (doyō) "ox day" (ushi no hi)  days. The first is on Friday, JULY 20 and the second is on Wednesday AUGUST 1.

"Ushi no hi" (literally, "ox day”) refers to a cycle of 12 animal names assigned to time periods, both years (the next Ox Year will be 2017) 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 believed to restore stamina that has been sapped by summer heat. And, eel is a truly nutritious food. Rich in vitamins B1 and A, high in EPA (which lowers blood cholesterol) and DHA (sometimes called "brain food," it is thought to enhance mental acumen).
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!