Last Updated on October 8, 2020 by eattalktraveljapan
Unagi is one of the most popular foods in Japan—especially during the summer. There’s even a mid-summer holiday where people eat unagi for strength to fight the summer heat.
If you’re still wondering what exactly unagi is then this article will tell you all you need to know. We’ll explain what it is, how it’s served, and prepare you to try this unique dish for yourself when you go to Japan.
What is Unagi?
Ok, first things first. Unagi is freshwater eel and it’s served grilled over rice. There are two main ways to prepare it: unagi don and unagi jyu ( also referred to as unadon and unajyu).
Unagi don is a Japanese rice bowl topped with grilled eel. Unagi means eel and don (short for donburi) means rice. Unadon is the casual way to eat unagi and is generally cheaper than unagi jyu.
Unagi jyu is also grilled eel over rice, but it’s served in a lacquered wooden box and often includes a larger portion of eel. Unajyu is what you should expect if you go to a restaurant specializing in unagi since it’s more formal.
Unagi vs anago
While we’re at it, you should also know something else that can be confusing. While unagi means eel, so does anago. However, they’re not the same.
Unagi specifically refers to freshwater eel and most people consider it much tastier than anago, which is saltwater eel. A skilled chef can make both taste good, but unagi is fattier and has more flavor.
Eel. It’s not as weird as you think
Depending on where you’re from, eating eel might be a little weird at first, but the taste is spectacular.
There are some differences in how it’s prepared, but the standard way is to cover the eel in tare sauce (pronounced tar-a), cut it, and grill it over charcoal until it’s crispy on the outside, but soft on the inside. The unique texture, combined with the subtle taste,from the charcoal it’s grilled over, lead to incredible results.
This is tare sauce
One of the most important parts of cooking unagi is the tare sauce. At a basic level, tare is just a combination of soy sauce, sake, and mirin. But, the best chefs make their own tare to create a signature flavor to unagi from their restaurant.
While most restaurants will make great unagi, an exceptional tare sauce will elevate the flavor to a whole new level. The special tare, combined with well crafted cooking skills, is why it’s worth seeking out a good unagi restaurant.
Tokyo style or Osaka style?
Different parts of Japan cut and cook unagi differently. Tokyo and Osaka in particular cook it in their own way.
In Tokyo, they cut the eel from the back and then have a three part cooking process. First, they grill it without any sauce. Second, they steam it. Finally, they cover it with tare sauce and grill it again. In Osaka, they cut the eel from the belly and grill it twice—first, without tare and then with tare—but don’t steam it.
Believe-it-or-not, this tradition goes back to the days of the samurai. In Tokyo, a dishonored samurai would commit suicide by driving a sword through his own stomach… so, the idea of cutting unagi from the belly is an unpleasant reminder of this tradition. Osaka doesn’t have this historical reference so it’s not an issue.
How does it taste?
As we mentioned when comparing unagi and anago, unagi is fatty and has a lot of flavor. But, the different cooking styles will give it a different texture, depending on where you try it.
In Tokyo, the extra step of steaming the eel gives it a softer texture with a smoother mouth feel. It’s still going to have a crisper outside, the soft interior will be noticeable.
Osaka style won’t be quite as soft in the middle and will be a little on the crispier side. The difference isn’t dramatic, but if you’re planning to visit both cities you should consider which sounds more appealing to you.
Where to try unagi in Japan
Unagi is one of the most famous foods in Japan, so there are plenty of places to try it. The real question is how good you want it to be and how much you’re willing to pay for it.
We recommend you go to a restaurant that specializes in unagi, rather than just a general restaurant that has it on the menu. While these specialized restaurants are more expensive, this is something that you can only experience in Japan so we think it’s worth it.
If you want Tokyo-style unagi, Obana is the place to go. This michelin starred restaurant is widely considered to grill up the best unagi. If you’re going for Osaka-style, we recommend Uoi, a classic unagi place that’s been around for more than 25 years.
If going to an unagi restaurant doesn’t work for you, another option is to get a take-away unagi don to bring back to your room. You can either go to an unagi restaurant to get it or stop by one of the many food halls inside department stores.