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The Delicious Delicacy of Japanese Grilled Eel: Exploring Unagi and Its Irresistible Flavors

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Have you ever wondered what makes Japanese grilled eel, or Unagi, an irresistible delicacy around the world? There's much more to this dish than its rich and uniquely sweet flavor from the traditional kabayaki sauce.

Our comprehensive guide will take you through this integral part of Japanese culinary tradition, letting you discover not only its mouthwatering taste but also its fascinating cultural significance and health benefits.

Prepare yourself for a culinary adventure that promises to deepen your appreciation for one of Japan's finest cuisines!

Key Takeaways

  1. Japanese grilled eel, or Unagi, is a delicacy with a rich and uniquely sweet flavor from the traditional kabayaki sauce.

  2. Unagi holds immense cultural and culinary significance in Japan, with a long-standing tradition and popularity that has endured for centuries.

  3. Japanese grilled eel offers numerous health benefits, including being high in omega - 3 fatty acids for heart health and providing protein and essential nutrients.

  4. To make Japanese grilled eel, start by selecting and preparing fresh eel, use traditional seasoning and marinating techniques to enhance its flavors, then grill it using specific methods to achieve delicious results.

What is Unagi and Why is it Popular Among Japanese Cuisine Enthusiasts?


Japanese grilled eel, known as unagi, holds immense cultural and culinary importance in Japan, with a long-standing tradition and popularity that has endured for centuries.

Cultural and culinary importance of the dish

In the realm of Japanese cuisine, few dishes match the cultural and culinary significance of Unagi, a delicious grilled eel masterpiece. The dish's heritage extends deep into Japan's history as it is tied to the midsummer day of the Ox on the lunar calendar when consuming this delicacy has been considered beneficial for endurance in hot weather.

To add onto its cultural relevance, wild-caught eels are preferred over farm-raised ones, making Unagi not only a mouthwatering meal but also an eco-conscious choice.

The artistry involved in preparing Unagi reflects its premium status in Japanese culinary culture. From careful selection and preparation to expert grilling techniques, each step contributes to creating that irresistible sweet and savory flavor characteristic of Kabayaki sauce-drenched Unagi.

Savoring this delicacy transports diners on a gastronomic journey through layers of taste and texture - from rich fatty succulence to delightfully flaky tenderness hinting at undertones comparable to bass.

Long-standing tradition and popularity in Japan

The cultural significance of Unagi, Japanese grilled eel, traces back centuries in Japan and it remains a staple cuisine among locals. Like the delicate petals of cherry blossoms symbolizing spring's arrival, Unagi marks the summer season.

This delicious delicacy is especially devoured on Doyo-no-ushi-eve days - traditional midsummer events to ward off ailments and summer heat fatigue. Its popularity extends so far that there's an entire day dedicated to it in July known as 'Unagi Day.'.

An age-old tradition involving wild catch contributes extensively to the esteemed status of this gastronomic wonder. Particularly, Lake Hamana in Shizuoka Prefecture boasts a reputation for providing high-quality eels sought after by connoisseurs across the nation for their sweet and tender meat.

Thanks to its unique flavor profile accentuated by kabayaki sauce - soy-based with added sweetness from mirin; establishments across Japan vie every year during peak seasons to serve this savory dish with pride and distinction making Unagi not just food but also a long-standing cultural institution in itself.

Health Benefits of Japanese Grilled Eel

Japanese grilled eel, known as Unagi, offers numerous health benefits. It is high in omega-3 fatty acids for a healthy heart, packed with protein and essential nutrients, and may even have potential therapeutic properties.

High in omega-3 fatty acids for heart health

Savoring the distinctive taste of Japanese grilled eel, or Unagi, does more than just tantalize your taste buds. This culinary gem is a powerhouse of omega-3 fatty acids – essential nutrients known for their heart-protective qualities.

Regular consumption can reduce inflammation in the body and lower blood pressure levels, factors crucial in maintaining good cardiovascular health. So whether it's indulging in Unagi Donburi at an upscale sushi bar or experiencing fresh-off-the-grill kabayaki by Lake Hamana, you're not only pleasing your palate but also making a heart-smart choice!

Rich source of protein and essential nutrients

Japanese grilled eel, or Unagi, is not only a delectable dish but also a rich source of protein and essential nutrients. Packed with omega-3 fatty acids, this succulent delicacy promotes heart health and provides an excellent source of high-quality protein.

When indulging in Unagi, foreign travelers can savor the benefits of vitamin A and calcium while enjoying its sweet and flaky texture. With its unique cooking style and rich flavor, Japanese grilled eel offers not just a tantalizing culinary experience but also a nutritious one that will leave you satisfied and nourished during your travels in Japan.

Potential therapeutic properties

Japanese grilled eel not only satisfies your taste buds but also offers potential therapeutic benefits. This delectable dish is high in omega-3 fatty acids, which are essential for heart health and brain function.

These healthy fats have been linked to reducing inflammation and lowering the risk of cardiovascular diseases. Moreover, Unagi is a rich source of protein that helps support muscle growth and repair.

It also contains important nutrients like vitamin A and calcium, which are crucial for maintaining strong bones and promoting good vision. So while indulging in the irresistible flavors of Japanese grilled eel, you can also enjoy the potential health perks it has to offer.

How is Unagi Prepared and Served in Japanese Cuisine?

preparing unagi

To make Japanese grilled eel, start by selecting and preparing fresh eel. Then, use traditional seasoning and marinating techniques to enhance its flavors. Finally, grill the eel using specific methods to achieve delicious results that will leave you craving for more.

Selection and preparation of eel

To experience the delectable flavors of Japanese grilled eel, known as unagi, it's important to start with selecting and preparing the eel in the right way. Here's a step-by-step guide:

  1. Choose fresh eel: Look for live or freshly caught eels at local fish markets or specialized seafood stores. The best quality eels are typically wild-caught rather than farmed.

  2. Cleaning the eel: Once you have your eel, it needs to be cleaned thoroughly. Remove the scales by scraping the skin with a knife. Then, make an incision from head to tail along the belly and carefully remove the organs.

  3. Removing the backbone: To make grilling easier, remove the backbone of the eel. Use a sharp knife to cut along both sides of the backbone. Make sure to maintain the shape of the eel while doing this.

  4. Filleting the eel: After removing the backbone, fillet the eel by slicing it lengthwise into two equal halves or cutting it into smaller pieces if desired.

  5. Soaking in water: To remove any impurities and help tenderize the flesh, soak the cleaned and filleted eel in cold water for about 30 minutes.

  6. Drying and seasoning: Pat dry each piece of eel with a paper towel before seasoning it with salt and allowing it to sit for a few minutes. This helps enhance its flavor and texture.

  7. Marinating in kabayaki sauce: Prepare or purchase kabayaki sauce, which is a soy-based sauce with a sweet taste due to mirin (a type of rice wine). Generously coat each piece of eel with kabayaki sauce and let them marinate for at least 30 minutes to absorb all those flavors.

  8. Preparing for grilling: Before grilling, make sure your charcoal grill is ready by heating it to medium-high heat. You can also use an oven or stove-top grill if a charcoal grill is not available.

  9. Grilling the eel: Place the marinated eel pieces on the grill, skin-side down, and cook for about 2-3 minutes per side. Baste the eel with more kabayaki sauce while grilling to add extra flavor and moisture.

  10. Final touches: Once grilled, remove the eel from the heat and serve it hot with steamed rice or in traditional dishes like Unagi Donburi. Drizzle some more kabayaki sauce over the eel for added taste.

Seasoning and marinating techniques

To achieve the irresistible flavors of Japanese grilled eel, here are some seasoning and marinating techniques to enhance the taste:

  1. Start with a high-quality eel: Look for fresh, wild-caught eel like those from Lake Hamana in Shizuoka Prefecture, known for its superior quality.

  2. Prepare the eel: After cleaning and filleting the eel, score the skin to prevent it from curling while grilling.

  3. Salt lightly: Sprinkle a small amount of salt on both sides of the eel fillets. This helps draw out excess moisture and adds a subtle flavor.

  4. Apply kabayaki sauce: Generously brush on kabayaki sauce, a sweet soy-based glaze made with mirin, soy sauce, and sugar. Ensure that both sides of the eel are evenly coated.

  5. Marinate for optimal flavor: Allow the eel to marinate in the sauce for at least 30 minutes before grilling. This allows the flavors to penetrate the meat and enhances its succulence.

  6. Grill over charcoal: For authentic flavors, grill the marinated eel over hot charcoal. The smoky aroma and charred edges add an extra dimension to the taste.

  7. Baste while grilling: While cooking, continuously baste the eel with more kabayaki sauce. This builds layers of flavor and ensures a caramelized glaze on top.

  8. Flip carefully: When it's time to flip the eel, use long chopsticks or tongs to avoid tearing the delicate flesh.

  9. Grill until tender yet firm: Keep an eye on cooking time as overcooking can make the eel tough or dry. Aim for a slightly firm texture with moist flakes that melt in your mouth.

  10. Serve hot off the grill: Once cooked, transfer the grilled eel onto a serving plate immediately. Enjoy it piping hot alongside a bowl of steamed rice and other accompanying side dishes.

Grilling methods for delicious results

To achieve the perfectly grilled and flavorful Japanese eel, try these grilling methods:

  1. Start with high-quality eel: Look for fresh eel from reputable fish markets or specialty stores. Wild-caught eels are considered the best for this dish.

  2. Clean and prepare the eel: Remove the scales and gut the eel thoroughly. Cut the eel into appropriate-sized fillets or keep them whole, depending on your preference.

  3. Seasoning and marinating: To enhance the flavor, brush the eel fillets with a mixture of soy sauce, mirin (sweet rice wine), sake (Japanese rice wine), and sugar. Let it marinate for at least 30 minutes to allow the flavors to penetrate the meat.

  4. Charcoal grilling: Traditional Japanese grilling involves using binchotan charcoal for an authentic smoky flavor. Preheat your grill to medium heat before placing the eel fillets directly on the glowing charcoal.

  5. Basting with sauce: Throughout the grilling process, baste the eel with generous amounts of kabayaki sauce using a brush. This sweet soy-based glaze adds layers of taste and caramelizes beautifully on top of the meat.

  6. Cooking time: Grill each side of the fillet for approximately 3-4 minutes until they turn golden brown and crispy on the outside while remaining tender inside. Be mindful not to overcook as it can result in dry and tough meat.

  7. Alternative cooking methods: If you don't have access to a grill, you can also pan-fry or broil the marinated eel fillets until they are cooked through and slightly charred.

  8. Serving suggestion: Enjoy your grilled unagi alongside a bowl of steamed rice, drizzled with extra kabayaki sauce for an irresistible combination of flavors. Add some pickled ginger or wasabi on top for an extra kick.

Serving and Enjoying Japanese Grilled Eel

eel dishes

Indulge in the delightful flavors of Japanese grilled eel as you discover popular dishes like Unagi Donburi, perfect pairings, and cultural customs surrounding this irresistible delicacy. Curious to know more? Keep reading!

Popular eel dishes in Japanese cuisine, such as Unagi Donburi

Unagi Donburi is one of the most popular eel dishes in Japanese cuisine. It consists of a bowl of steamed rice topped with grilled eel pieces, covered in a savory and slightly sweet kabayaki sauce.

The combination of tender, flaky eel and flavorful sauce creates a mouthwatering experience that will leave you wanting more. This dish is often enjoyed on its own or paired with pickles and miso soup for a complete meal.

Unagi Donburi showcases the deliciousness and versatility of Japanese grilled eel, making it a must-try dish for any food lover visiting Japan.

Pairing with rice and other side dishes

When enjoying Japanese grilled eel, it is best to pair it with rice and other delectable side dishes. Here are some recommendations for a truly satisfying meal:

  1. Unagi Donburi: This classic dish features a bed of steamed white rice topped with grilled eel fillets glazed in rich kabayaki sauce. The sweet and savory flavors of the eel perfectly complement the fluffy rice.

  2. Miso Soup: A bowl of miso soup is an ideal accompaniment to unagi. Made from fermented soybean paste, this flavorful soup adds depth to the meal and provides a comforting warmth.

  3. Pickled Vegetables: Traditional Japanese pickles, such as tsukemono, offer a refreshing contrast to the rich flavors of the eel. These tangy and crunchy treats cleanse the palate between bites.

  4. Wakame Salad: A light salad made with seaweed, cucumber, and a sesame dressing can provide a refreshing balance to the richness of the eel dish.

  5. Tempura: Crispy tempura vegetables or shrimp make for an excellent side dish alongside unagi. The contrasting textures and flavors create a delightful combination.

  6. Green Tea: To complete your meal, sip on a cup of green tea. Its subtle bitterness helps cleanse the palate and aids digestion.

Cultural customs and traditions surrounding eel consumption

In Japan, the consumption of eel holds special cultural significance and is surrounded by unique customs and traditions. For starters, one of the most important days to indulge in this delicacy is on 'Doyo no Ushi no Hi,' which falls on a specific day during the summer season.

On this day, it's believed that eating grilled eel can help combat the intense heat and provide stamina for the rest of summer. This tradition dates back centuries and is still widely observed today.

When enjoying Japanese grilled eel, it's customary to use a specific type of wooden box called an 'unagi-oke.' These boxes are designed to keep the eel warm while maintaining its delicious flavor.

Furthermore, etiquette dictates that you should eat every last morsel of your meal as leaving even a single piece behind implies wasting good fortune.

Additionally, when ordering unagi at a restaurant or from a food stall, it's common to hear chefs yell out energetic phrases like 'irasshaimase!' This enthusiastic greeting adds to the overall dining experience and sets an upbeat atmosphere for everyone present.


In summary, the captivating world of Japanese grilled eel, or Unagi, awaits all food enthusiasts visiting Japan. With its irresistible flavors and cultural significance, it promises a truly exceptional culinary adventure.

From its noteworthy health benefits to the meticulous preparation methods involved, Unagi offers a tantalizing taste that lingers long after the last bite. When you find yourself in Japan, make it a priority to immerse yourself in this delectable dish and relish the unforgettable flavors of Japanese grilled eel. Your taste buds will thank you for embarking on this remarkable culinary journey.


Unagi is a freshwater eel that is popular in Japanese cooking and is often grilled or baked. It has a delicate texture and a sweet, savory flavor that is often served with a variety of sauces and seasonings.

Unadon is a Japanese rice bowl topped with grilled eel fillets that have been brushed with a sweet unagi sauce. It is a popular dish that is often eaten during the Day of the Ox, which falls on July 25th in Japan.

Kabayaki is a method of preparing eel that involves cutting it into fillets and then grilling or broiling it while brushing it with a sweet, soy-based sauce.

Unagi donburi is a delectable Japanese dish that features grilled eel, known as unagi, served on a bed of steamed rice. This culinary delight is a bowl filled with succulent eel fillets that have been carefully grilled to perfection, resulting in a smoky aroma and tender texture. The eel is generously glazed with a sweet and savory kabayaki sauce, made from soy sauce, mirin, and sugar, which imparts a rich caramelized flavor to the dish.

To fully appreciate the flavors and textures of unagi, it is recommended to try dishes like unadon (grilled eel rice bowl), unaju (grilled eel served in a lacquered box), or simply grilled eel sushi. These preparations allow you to savor the tender and smoky eel alongside complementary ingredients, such as rice or nori (seaweed). The combination of sweet and savory flavors creates a delightful experience when you eat unagi, highlighting the unique appeal of this beloved Japanese delicacy.

Eel sauce, also known as kabayaki sauce, is a sweet and savory glaze used in various culinary preparations. It typically consists of ingredients such as soy sauce, mirin (sweet rice wine), sugar, and sometimes dashi (Japanese stock). The combination of these ingredients creates a rich, caramelized flavor that enhances the taste of dishes, particularly grilled eel (unagi). Eel sauce adds a delightful balance of sweetness and umami, bringing out the natural flavors of ingredients and contributing to the overall deliciousness of the dish.

Unagi no kabayaki is a traditional Japanese dish that refers to grilled eel prepared using a specific cooking technique. ‘Unagi’ translates to ‘eel’, and ‘kabayaki’ refers to the grilling method. In this preparation, the eel is filleted, butterflied, and skewered before being grilled over charcoal or an open flame. The eel is then basted with a sweet and savory sauce called kabayaki sauce, made from ingredients such as soy sauce, mirin, sugar, and sometimes sake.

Unaju is a traditional Japanese dish that consists of grilled eel (unagi) served in a lacquered box called a ‘jubako’ or ‘jusan-daru’. The eel is prepared using the kabayaki grilling method, where the fillets are basted with a sweet and savory sauce and grilled to perfection. The grilled eel is then arranged beautifully in the lacquered box, typically over a bed of steamed rice. Unaju is often accompanied by a side of pickles and is served with a separate bowl of clear soup (suimono) to complement the flavors. This elegant presentation and combination of flavors make unaju a popular and indulgent dish enjoyed in traditional Japanese cuisine.

Unagi is usually filleted and grilled with the skin side facing down first. It is then brushed with a sweet sauce and grilled until fully cooked.

Sansho is a type of Japanese pepper that is commonly used to season grilled eel. It has a spicy, citrusy flavor that complements the sweet, savory flavor of the eel.

Yes, homemade unagi is possible with the right ingredients and cooking method. It can be challenging to find freshwater eel in grocery stores, but there are some online retailers that sell it. There are also recipes available online that can guide you through the process of making unagi sauce and grilling the eel fillets.

To make a delicious unagi rice bowl, start by cooking fresh or leftover cooked rice. Then, grill the unagi fillets with the skin side down first. After that, brush the eel with the unagi sauce and continue grilling until fully cooked. Finally, place the unagi fillets on top of the rice and pour more unagi sauce on top. Add some chopped scallions and ground Japanese sansho pepper for extra flavor.

A grilled eel rice bowl, also known as unadon, is a popular Japanese dish that allows you to truly savor and enjoy eating unagi. It consists of tender grilled eel fillets placed on a bed of steamed rice, topped with a luscious kabayaki sauce. Unlike other unagi dishes, the grilled eel rice bowl provides a direct and satisfying way to relish the flavors of unagi as you eat each delightful bite. The combination of the grilled eel and rice creates a harmonious and satisfying experience that showcases the unique appeal of Japanese cuisine when it comes to eating unagi.