Originally published at Tokyo Stories, July 24, 2008

Ever eaten eel?  In the US, sea eel (anago) is usually sold at sushi restaurants. Freshwater eel (unagi) you probably need to search for a little harder.

Unagi eel in supermarket in Tokyo, Japan

Unagi in supermarket in Tokyo, Japan

It’s customary to dine on eel on special days called “Doyo ushi no hi”,  falling on July 24 and August  5 in 2008.  The supermarkets expand their eel selection for eel eating days.


In the past couple of years in Japan, there’s been dramatic price increases on the always expensive unagi at supermarkets.

Mislabeled eel scandals – claiming unagi from China as Japanese-raised and chemical-free –  has caused the price spikes. (And just this month, some valuable live eels were stolen from a tank behind a restaurant in Japan.)

I cut back on eel last summer. But anticipating a need for stamina to survive the heat and humidity, I ordered frozen unagi in bulk, discounted on the internet, as I’ve done a couple times previously.

It’s sold as “imperfect”, meaning some pieces are broken and are not beautiful enough for supermarkets to offer. Other than the shape, it’s perfectly fine unagi. (Unless it’s that slightly tainted eel that’s been purposely mislabeled by the Japan distributor as originating in Japan and unfortunately you bought it, which I’m pretty sure I’ve done, but I’ll take my chances anyway. )

Did I mention the box of frozen eels come with their frozen heads?
Frozen eel shipment in Japan

Frozen eel shipment in Japan

The heads may be attached to the body or broken off the little eel necks. You open the styrofoam box, and there’s all these eel stiffs and some eel eyes staring up at you.

I don’t eat flattened eel heads. I don’t eat eel heads of any shape. Instead, I chop ’em off and offer them to friends, who usually decline. So the heads get thrown away. (Probably the heads provide the most stamina but I don’t care.)

If you ever find a frozen, flattened, sauce-covered ready-to-grill eel with it’s head attached, go ahead, try a head.

Japanese unagi ads

Japanese unagi ads

FRIENDS: The One With Unagi
INTERIOR, hallway between the apartments. Ross hides behind a wall on Monica’s side. Phoebe and Rachel come up the stairs into the hallway. Ross jumps out.
ROSS: Danger! Danger!
RACHEL: What the hell was that?
ROSS:  A lesson in the importance of unagi.
PHOEBE: Ohh, you’re a freak!!
Watch the unagi scenes from Friends.


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