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