Japanese Cuisine

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Unadon - Japanese Grilled Eel

By Meike Peters/ eat in my kitchen inspired by Unagi Hitsumabushi Bincho, Tokyo


Serves 2

For the sauce

60ml / ¼ cup mirin (rice wine similar to sake)
1 tablespoons sake
2 tablespoons sugar
60ml / ¼ cup tamari sauce
A pinch of salt

For the eel

2 long boneless eel fillets (unagi)
6-8 strong metal skewers

Steamed white rice, for serving
Japanese sansho pepper, for serving (optional)


Heat the BBQ, preferably using charcoal. The grill should be very hot for this recipe.

For the sauce, in a small saucepan, bring the mirin and sake to a boil, cook for 15 seconds, then add the sugar, tamari sauce, and salt. Reduce the heat to medium-low, stir until the sugar dissolved. Simmer the sauce for about 10 minutes or until thick. Let the sauce cool for at least 10 minutes.

Lay the eel fillets next to each other on a large chopping board, skin side down, and carefully thread them onto the skewers (see pictures). Mind your fingers, as the eel is slippery. The skewers prevent the eel from rolling up and make it easier to turn the fish.

Grill the eel for about 10 minutes, skin side first, until the skin is golden and partly brown. Using the skewers, turn the eel and grill on the other side until almost done. Dip the fillets into the sauce, or brush generously on both sides, and grill for 1-2 minutes until crispy and golden brown, turning every few seconds and letting the oily juices of the fish and the sauce combine. Dip into the sauce again, put the fish back on the grill and let the sauce dry on both sides for just a few seconds. Take the fish off the grill and remove the skewers. Cut the fillets into bite size pieces and enjoy the first bite, freshly off the grill.

Divide the rice between bowls, arrange the eel on top, and sprinkle with sansho pepper.

Chef Takashi Ibuki from Unagi Hitsumabushi Bincho, Tokyo


"The most important thing as a chef is that the knife is at one with your hand. I want the knife to become part of me through long use."


A day at Unagi Hitsumabushi Bincho, Tokyo

by Meike Peters

When glowing hot charcoal, slippery eel, and tare, a thick and sticky sweetened tamari-based sauce, meet in a Japanese kitchen, you'll be rewarded with the juiciest fish fillets wrapped in a crisp dark crust and with a lot of fun - if the sous-chef is German.

Unagi (freshwater eel) is a delicacy in Japan, it's slightly bigger than its European relative, but it's just as tasty, rich, and fatty, which makes it the perfect fish for grilling. Eel is an endangered species, worldwide, so you should always go for farmed fish, the eggs caught in the sea and then raised in river water. Unadon is one scrumptious way of serving this treat, golden-grilled eel fillets pillowed on steamed white rice in a bowl, so that all the beautiful flavors can shine.

A recommendation from a friend brought me to the 12th floor of a high, plain looking building in one of Tokyo's most popular shopping and dining districts. It's an unusual spot for a restaurant, but the fantastic view overlooking Ginza, especially at sunset, explains the owner's choice. When I left the elevator and passed Hitsumabushi Bincho's kitchen window, I spotted a long grill right in front of the glass, the coal hot and glowing, steaming rice in the back, and black bowls lined up on shiny shelves - I got excited! Chef Ibuki was trained at the restaurant's first location in Nagoya for more than 10 years and he optimistically offered to introduce me to the art of grilling eel. This man is patient.

It's not so much the grilling that takes long, but if you let a German girl pierce 4 slippery eel fillets with metal skewers you'll be rewarded with some kitchen entertainment. What looked so smooth and easy in my master's hands, took ages in mine. However, my clumsy attempts made everybody laugh and, to my surprise, led to acceptable results.

So there's definitely fun involved in this recipe, but the taste and texture that you can experience when you have the first warm bite in your mouth, fresh from the grill, is pure pleasure. The traditional Japanese preparation for eel sounds like the best way to cook a fish that's packed with fat and flavor. First you pierce the eel to get an even surface, to prevent the fillets from curling up, and to make it easier to flip them over once they are on the grill. Imagine all those oily juices, dripping off into the hot coal and steaming the fish, and then, when it looks golden and crisp, you dip it into a dark thick marinade made of mirin (similar to sake), tamari (similar to soy sauce), and sugar. You do this twice, when the fish is almost cooked through, grilling it in between, to darken the color and give the flavors more depth. It's heavenly.

For centuries eel has been a special treat in Japan, the samurais appreciated it as a
luxurious meal, and even today you can find it on the table when it's time to celebrate
and feast.

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