Eels. Just saying the word, which sounds a little too similar to “eww!” can raise the hair on the back of your neck. They seem so slimy, and did you know they bite too? But more importantly, did you know how tasty they can be? Unagi, or freshwater eel (not to be confused with “anago,” which is saltwater eel), is a delicacy in Japan, particularly popular during summer months, but available year round. You may have seen unagi sushi (not raw — unagi is always served cooked through), but for a more immersive experience, try your chopsticks at “unaju,” which is, to oversimplify, a broiled eel box lunch.
If beauty starts on the inside, this is going to be a wayward post. A proper unaju comes to your table in a beautiful lacquerware box, usually hued in some combination of black and orange-red. Lifting the elegant lid, delight should come to your face as you see the entire surface covered by perfectly broiled unagi, brushed with a thin, dark sauce that is just mildly sweet to the taste. The sauce is made roughly of equal parts soy sauce, sugar, and rice wine, but only enough to give accent is applied to the eel. On top of this, you may wish sprinkle on some Japanese pepper, which can usually be found accompanied by a tiny spoon in a little wooden container on the table.
The unagi itself should be just barely crispy on the outside, and meaty-tender on the inside. If you’ve never had unagi, you may be surprised at how un-fishy or seafood-like it tastes. The best unaju is made from just-off-the fire roasted eel with just a bit of the lightly sweetened sauce described above. Below the expanse of eel lies wall-to-wall rice, but not just your run of the mill white rice. Instead, this rice will be lightly brown in color, and infused with the flavors of eel and some other special flavors indicative to Japanese cuisine.
Looking to try unaju in Tokyo?
Japan Gourmetpedia recommends using our sister site, Tokyo Dinner Ticket, to find the perfect restaurant.