An endangered delicacy

From slippery and wriggly to crispy and savoury, grilled eel is all the rage—but perhaps not for long.

It’s the hottest day of the year and your stomach is growling. What do you reach for? Fresh fruits and veggies may come to mind, or perhaps icy-cold treats like popsicles and smoothies are all you can think about consuming in the sweltering heat. But in Japan, there’s a surprise front-runner: unagi, or grilled freshwater eel. As unconventional as it may seem, summertime eel meals follow a long line of tradition—and are moving into an uncertain future.

Eating unagi has become synonymous with the steamiest days of summer, or Doyo no Ushi (Day of the Ox). Visit Japan between late July and early August this year and you’ll find residents across the country heading to local restaurants to get their unagi fix in one of its many forms. Grilled over charcoal, steamed, basted with a sweet sauce and grilled again before being served over a bed of hot rice, unagi is an interesting choice for a blazing hot summer day, but it’s one that’s been around for centuries.

P12-01Curiously, the trend seems to have begun with a simple but creative marketing tactic hundreds of  years ago. Disappointed with low summer sales, an independent eel seller sought the advice of Hiraga Gennai, a well-known artist and intellectual during the Edo period (1603–1868), regarding how to sell more eel in the heat of summer. Hiraga came up with a play on words: combining the shared first character of unagi and ushi (う)—which coincidentally looks like a long, slithering eel—he suggested that the restaurateur display a sign promoting the importance of eating eel on the Day of the Ox. The slogan worked, and it quickly became common- place to enjoy unagi at the height of summer. Full of vitamins, protein and calcium, unagi is revered as the go-to nutrition source to gain enough stamina to make it through the intense heat.

As the slippery fish’s popularity grew, however, its chances of survival as a species shrunk rapidly: freshwater eel populations in Japanese waters have declined by 90% over the past three generations. Multiple sustainability organizations have warned that unagi numbers are worryingly low—not just in Japan, but also in U.S. and European waters, where fishermen can turn huge profits for catching glass (infantile) eels for export to fish farms across Asia. With demand and supply at odds, the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources has added freshwater eel to its Red List of endangered species, while the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch program recommends avoiding unagi consumption altogether.

The future of unagi looks grim—but if you opt to try it, you have more than one delicious form available to you. You could try kabayaki (unagi skewers), shirayaki (unagi without the sweet sauce) or kimosui (soup made from unagi liver) in addition to the standard unadon (unagi over rice) and unakyu (sushi with unagi and cucumber). Sprinkle some sansho (powdered Japanese pep- per) on top and experience this summer favourite while it lasts.