Unagi Mambo #1 (Unagi Udon Soup)

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Talk about cultural need for the obscure/weird/out there food (Whole shows and books/content creators focused on this)

Recipe Links:
Unagi Kabayaki
Adventure in Processing Live Eel and Making Kabayaki (This ended up being the best walkthrough I could find on how to fillet an eel)

Eel is not something you hear most Americans talking about in their day to day culinary efforts, outside of the odd sushi joint visit when someone is feeling a little more adventurous than your average California roll. So it’s no surprise that finding this slippery little devil was a little… well, slippery.

I’d decided to embark on this culinary adventure/boondoggle after reading an excellent piece in The Counter about the global eel market and finding that grabbing some takeout teriyaki unagi from the sushi restaurant around the corner just wasn’t fulfilling enough for me. After reading a few more articles and watching a few more videos I was convinced I needed to challenge myself by starting from the fish itself. It also helped my decision that shipping eel is outrageously outside my nonexistent budget and pre-filleted eel is much too dry by the time you start cooking to make a worthwhile meal.

I ended up visiting at least a half dozen different Asian supermarkets and seafood stores on two different trips trying to track down some fresh eel. Very few carried eel, and those that did only offered a paltry frozen pre-cut fillet of a saltwater eel variety instead of the freshwater I was looking for. My first attempt was unsuccessful until the very last stop. I arrived at the Park Hill Supermarket and saw what I was looking for. A slightly moist seafood counter, a variety of jailed crustaceans and fish, and on the board of offerings a pixelated photograph of a yellow eel.

As luck would have it, I showed up right as a woman was buying the very last two eels. My hopes and dreams went along with the eels as a fishmonger drained and sliced them up for her. I grabbed some pre-cut fillets out of sheer stubbornness to experiment with, but they were already too dry to make anything decent out of. But thankfully the eels would be squirming in stock again next week!

The next week I came right back and was able to pick up 2 fresh yellow eels. I know I should have expected this since they are eels after all, but boy were they slimy. At least half my prep time was spent wrangling them back in place or wiping their outer gunk off my hands. Gloves will be worn next time for certain! I’ll spare the gory details since I don’t enjoy this part of cooking. But I do think as a meat eater it’s important to recognize how our food gets to the plate, and this recipe was a good reminder of the fact. However it also exposed that my knife skills need some serious improvement. Suffice to say I’m glad the eels were already dead and no one was around to watch my clumsy attempts at filleting. But eventually I ended up with a few mangled fillets to cook.

But before you can cook them you need to get rid of that eel gunk. The video I linked above recommended you first coat them in salt then wash with water. I think that helped a little, but the second part seemed much more effective. You heat up some water until it starts to boil, then dip the fillets in for just a few seconds. After you pull them off it’s a simple matter of scraping off that outer gunk with a spoon.

Poorly cut eel fillets, rid of the aforementioned eel gunk. And ready to cook!

From there the rest is pretty simple. Slather the fillets in your sauce (I had prepped mine the day before to try and thicken it overnight a bit in the fridge), pop them in the oven at 500 degrees, and monitor while flipping/re-applying your sauce.

Overall the cooking was a fairly smooth process, but I wasn’t totally satisfied with how the eel turned out. My first test run of fillets I definitely overcooked, probably from an overabundance of fear that this unfamiliar fish would kill me if I didn’t burn it to a crisp. But I toned things down the second run and came out with a decent batch of cooked eel. I stuck with a simple pre-made udon noodles and broth packet to complement the eel, then sautéed up a batch of enoki mushrooms and threw on some Momofuku Chili Crunch seasoning to add a little spice.

Eel is cooked, noodles are cooking

The end result? Eh, it was alright. The aesthetics were great, but flavor left something to be desired. The eel texture? Basically the same as chicken, if a little chewier. I think the sauce was the main problem, the flavor really didn’t go into the meat like I wanted it to. But I noticed the next day that my leftover eel tasted even better, so I think I’m close to something presentable. Also I’d like to improve everything else accompanying the eel, probably use something more ambitious than a noodle soup now that I have a little experience.

Ta Daaa!!

This was a lot of work, and I probably shouldn’t have started off my re-entry into cooking with something this far out. But I know I can’t cook unless it’s something I’m interested in, and I know this fish will hold my attention for a long time. I’m sure the next iteration will be even better!

Notes for Next Time:

  • The Kabayaki Sauce needs to be a lot thicker. None of the recipes I followed were viscous enough, even after I tried adding corn starch. As a result I don’t think the sauce flavor permeated the eel meat enough and was cooked off in the oven. Also I think it could use a bit more sweetness
  • I need to suck less at filleting fish.
  • I’d love to find a way to charcoal-grill my fillets instead of using an oven. Maybe I’ll pick up a camping grill?
  • I went with an udon soup because it was a fairly simple meal after all the eel-wrangling. But maybe next time I’ll try sushi, a rice dish, or something else entirely?