Circle of Eel Life in Hamamatsu, Japan
Yes, I admit it. Prior to a month-long visit to Japan in 2004 as part of Rotary International’s Group Study Exchange, I thought unagi was a karate concept invented by Ross on the television show Friends. A visit to Hamamatsu in Shizuoka introduced me to the sweet and savory freshwater eel called unagi and to this day, I still can’t get enough. Oishii! (That means delicious.)
Hamamatsu, Pioneers in Eel Farming
The city of Hamamatsu, located about a three-hour train ride southwest of Tokyo, is recognized as a pioneer in eel farming. For more than a century eel farmers have been raising this freshwater fish for eating.
The small group and I toured a farm and while watching dark eels splash in their tanks, an interpreter explained that scientists have not been able to replicate a natural environment to “trick” them into laying eggs in captivity. This means farmers harvest eels from the wild and raise them within tanks.
Unagi Pai – the Adult Late Night Snack
Following the eel farm tour was a trip to the Eel Pie Factory where we each a donned stylish white coat, hair net and shoe coverings to ensure we didn’t contaminate the bakery while learning and seeing how unagi pai (or eel pie) is made.
These look and taste like thin and long butter cookies but they contain a special ingredient believed to increase stamina and arousal in adults. The potent ingredient? Powdered eel bones along with flour, sugar and garlic. Move over little blue pill, there’s a tastier late night adult snack in town!
Later in the week was a lunch of unagi. On a bed of white rice, golden brown fillets were placed in front of me. The unagi had been grilled, steamed, basted with a subtly sweet sauce and grilled again. While enjoying my meal I savored every vibrant bite which was a combination of a light and sweet fish flavor with a hint of smoke from the grilling.
Unagi is traditionally eaten on Day of the Ox which is celebrated in July. Nutrients in eel are believed to increase stamina so eating unagi helps people get through the hottest days of summer. But as I learned (not from experience), stamina from eel just isn’t for summer days but also for steamy nights.
Visit the Eel Pie Factory at 748-51 Okubo-cho, Nishi-ku, Hamamatsu, Shizuoka Prefecture 432-8006.