July 21, 2015
By Kurumi Kato, Narumi Kitagawa and Yu Nakabayashi
Kyoto is one of the hottest cities in Japan in summer. To help keep cool during the hot season, Japanese people have traditionally eaten eel. There are several stories concerning how this custom started. One of the most believable says that eel provides nutrition that is effective for against summer ailments such as heatstroke or heat fatigue. This custom of eating eels in summer has continued for about 200 years now. When is this it? On the day called Doyounoushi, in English “the midsummer day of the ox,” Japanese eat a bowl of rice with eel on top to get them through the summer.
History of Eel Cuisine
Eels have been eaten in Japan for at least 1,300 years. The first document, which refers to eel as a food is the Fudoki, which was published in 713. At that time, people used to chop eels up into small pieces, or use an entire one, skewer it, grill it and then dip it in soybean paste or vinegar. Since then the way of cutting up an eel has changed. Now the eel is split open and the bones are removed before being skewered. With the spread of the Eastern-Japan-style soy sauce, which is called koikuchi-shoyu, soy sauce-flavored eels became ever more popular. In the middle of 1700s, some eel shops started to serve grilled eels, or kabayaki. The flavor was closer to the flavor we taste now. Around 1800, restaurants, which served a bowl of rice topped with kabayaki, called unadon, became more common, although some were quite exclusive. Before the Edo era ended, the way of selling kabayaki varied. While it was a dish of some exclusive restaurants, some people sold it from a cart or street stall.
Kabayaki and the Differences between Kanto and Kansai
We cook eel in many ways. But usually we grill it and add sauce, which includes soy sauce, mirin, sugar, saké and so on. This method is called kabayaki as mentioned before. The most famous eel dish is unadon. Don means a bowl of rice with food on top. We put eel on rice and enjoy them together. This way of eating eel was invented in the Edo era, which is about 400 years ago. This style remains one of the standard dishes of Japanese local cuisine.
The way to cook and eat Eel differs from region to region, even in Japan. For example in Kanto, which is in the eastern part of Japan, eel is sliced open along the spine, and grilled from the back side. There is a historical reason for this. In the Kanto region, the culture of Bushi took root. Bushi were warriors who appeared in the Edo period. They would cut open their stomach if they lost a fight. So that is why people avoided slicing the eel from the front side.
How about in Kansai, which is in the western part of Japan? Different from Kanto, Kansai people started to slice their unagi from the front side. The reason also originated in the Edo period. In those days, Osaka prefecture, which is a part of Kansai, flourished as a town of commerce. Merchants valued heart-to-heart talk with customers when they conducted their business. In Japanese, heart-to-heart talk is translated as “talk while cutting each other’s abdomen.” In this region, cutting the abdomen carried a positive meaning. This culture is being reflected in the way unagi is cut now.
Kaneyo in Kyoto
There are lots of places that sell unadon in Kyoto. Kaneyo is especially famous for its unique unadon and the appearance of its interior and exterior. The interior is classic Japanese style. Kaneyo is a two-story building. The first floor has seats at a counter. The second floor is a drawing room. The drawing room has Japanese-style flooring, tatami, and Japanese sliding paper doors, shoji. Restaurants that have tatami and shoji are decreasing. But, you can see this style of Japanese house in this restaurant.
You can also see the cooks grilling eels on the first floor. Kaneyo’s unado is not ordinary. Ordinary Unadon is made of grilled eels, rice and sauce. Kaneyo’s unadon contains big fried egg on top. When you open the lid of the food container, you will find big fried egg, and the grilled eels is underneath. You can enjoy eating this dish in three ways. First, eat the fried egg. It tastes rich of dashi (favoring), and its texture is really airy. Second, eat the fried egg and grilled eel together. Eels grilled to the perfect degree of softness taste great with the fried egg. That combination is really good. Then, eat only the grilled eels. You can taste the umami (savoriness) of the grilled eels.
Kaneyo is located in Kyoto city. It’s a five-minute walk from Kawaramachi Station. If you have a time, and you are still wondering which restaurant to try, go to Kaneyo and eat unadon or grilled eels on the day of doyounoushi.