Samurai vs Merchants: Different ways to fillet unagi
July 3, 2017
Japan is one of the world’s largest consumers of freshwater eels, known in Japanese as unagi. Surrounded by the sea, Japan has an abundance of diverse seafood, but unagi holds a special place in people’s hearts. Far from an everyday dish, it’s a food served at celebrations and other special occasions to energize both body and soul.
Japan has a distinctive way of preparing unagi known as kabayaki, in which the fish is filleted, skewered and grilled while being basted with a sweet and savory sauce. It may seem like there’s nothing to it, but each step requires skill and experience. There’s even a saying in Japanese that “it takes three years to learn the skewering, eight years for the filleting, and a lifetime for the grilling.” Let’s take a look at the techniques of a master chef who’s been filleting unagi for 45 years.
A live freshwater eel is slippery and difficult to handle, but a real pro can have it filleted in just 30 seconds. Interestingly enough, there’s a difference in the way chefs in Kanto (eastern Japan) and Kansai (western Japan) fillet eel, which mainly has to do with whether the eel is split down the back or the belly. You may be wondering what the big deal is, but these two styles reflect the difference in the traditional mindsets of the people of Kanto and Kansai.
The video above shows the Kanto style, in which the eel is split down the back. Kanto is centered on Tokyo, which until the mid-19th century was Edo, the city of the samurai. Splitting the belly was a visual reminder of harakiri, the way a samurai committed ritual suicide. That’s one reason why tradition in Kanto dictates that you fillet unagi by splitting it down the back.
In Kansai, meanwhile, the preferred style is to split open the belly. It’s said this has to do with how the people of Kansai tend to speak their mind. Specifically, people from Kansai like to “split upon their bellies” and have a heart-to-heart (figuratively, of course). Kansai, which includes the commercial center of Osaka, was a region where merchants placed importance on frank negotiations. That custom is reflected in the way eels are split down the belly.
The innards removed after filleting are used in kimosui, a clear soup served alongside unaju or unadon dishes. The clear, subtly-flavored dashi stock goes well with the sweet and savory richness of the unagi. Even the bones can be deep-fried after washing to be turned into crisp crackers. By going the extra mile, it’s possible to utilize the entire eel and create delectable dishes served on special occasions. Unagi cuisine embodies the spirit of “mottainai,” in which nothing is wasted—and reflects the unique cultural differences between eastern and western Japan.
Text: Ayaka Miyamoto
Nakacho 386, Narita, Chiba Prefecture