Update: Freshwater Eel / Unagi (CONTEST)

Please stop eating unagi.

An adult European eel, Anguilla anguilla.

A recent article in the Guardian, a prestigious UK newspaper that has an entire department devoted to environmental issues, has reported that eel populations across the European continent have dropped by 95% in the past 25 years.  Sadly, this isn’t really that surprising.

Steven Morris, the article’s author, writes that “a ban on exporting eels out of Europe – they are a popular dish in the far east – is proposed, along with a plan to severely limit the fishing season and the number of people who will be allowed licences [sic -- heh].”  Unfortunately, that is the extent to which the article discusses the connection of the eel’s dire situation to the sushi world.

Eels in captivity.  Chances are exceptionally good that they were captured from a dying European or American population.

The unagi industry is based primarily in China and relies on glass eels (babies) caught in the wild rather than hatching animals within the farms.

There’s not a whole lot I can add to my current entry on unagi.  It already ends with “Don’t eat it.”  I guess this isn’t so much of an update as it is me beating the same old drum.

I don’t mean to be preachy, but this animal is in serious trouble.  We need to give it a break.  There are other options.  Honestly, drench just about any fatty, sustainable whitefish (I suggest Alaskan or Canadian black cod) in kabeyaki sauce, broil it or sear it with a blowtorch, and serve it with sesame seeds over rice: it’s gonna taste a whole lot like unagi.

Listen, I’m not trying to be obnoxious about this.  I just am particularly passionate about this issue.  The eel is an incredible creature, and we know so little about it.  All freshwater eels from both sides of the North Atlantic swim all the way to one small tract of ocean — the Sargasso Sea — to spawn.  For the longest time, we actually thought they simply incarnated from mud and weeds in rivers because we had never seen breeding eels. There’s still so much we can learn about this animal.

Your entry will be prepared in this fashion.

Let me put something out there, as added incentive.  How about this — everyone who reads this post, please comment on it with your alternative to eel.  It could be anything you want (but black cod, aka sablefish, has already been taken, so that doesn’t count; and no unsustainable items — that goes without saying.)  I’ll wait ten days from posting.  On the eleventh day (May 15th), I’ll take all the suggestions to Chef Kin Lui at Tataki Sushi Bar.  He will look at the list of suggestions, try them out as kabeyaki-style dishes, and choose a favorite.  I’ll post a picture of the winning dish.  Whoever wins will receive a free dinner for two at Tataki Sushi Bar in San Francisco, as well as a signed copy of my book.

Good luck!

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May 5, 2009 at 4:41 am

I’m a vegan and have never had unagi, but I use portabello mushrooms when I teach classes on making vegan sushi. Honestly, like you said, it’s the sauce and preparation that really count in this case, and if you want it to be really sustainable, why not use some thing that will always be sustainable like mushrooms?

Here’s a link to a picture of some nigiri made with portabellos: http://www.flickr.com/photos/vegan-vanguard/2807683586/in/set-72157607005090465/

May 5, 2009 at 9:32 am

Would Arctic Char work? I know it’s a little more salmony than eel, but like you said…with the sauce on it, I think it’d be really tasty.

May 5, 2009 at 10:13 am

How about Spanish mackeral?

May 5, 2009 at 11:28 am

How about Sand Dabs?

May 5, 2009 at 4:25 pm

I think Pacific Octopus would work well. no?

May 5, 2009 at 9:14 pm

The “licences” spelling is the correct UK spelling, as befits The Guardian’s stylebook.

May 6, 2009 at 2:58 am

You’re right, of course. The [sic] is me being obnoxious. Thus the “heh” at the end.

May 12, 2009 at 4:45 pm

I tried to recreate an unagi roll once and simply sauteed strips of eggplant in a comparable sweetened bbq sauce. It was pretty great! Another benefit of eggplant sauteed in oil and served in a dark sauce is that it even looks a bit like unagi. Enjoy!

May 15, 2009 at 2:46 pm

Rattlesnake might work, if it were tenderized

May 16, 2009 at 9:11 pm

Time’s up! Contest is now closed. Thanks for participating!

Brandess Sorrels
Apr 19, 2010 at 11:12 pm

I just ate unagi tonight, and am happy to read this, now that I know about the eel’s problem, Ill try something else! I am more than willing to change my ingredients. Thank you for posting.

Jul 7, 2010 at 4:06 pm

Not all freshwater eels go to the sargasso sea as implied. There are a species which i know thrive in the rice fields in Trinidad. They surely don’t have access to the sea!!

Richard Pattee
Aug 6, 2011 at 7:31 pm

Do it exactly like they make imitation crab or lobster. Use eel ends for a stock, one tenth real eel and nine tenths filler fish (pollock or others). The alternative is to farm the eek locally (ecologically of course).

Kiana Avery
Sep 29, 2011 at 7:49 am

ewww these eels look nasty and slimy…!!!

Feb 12, 2012 at 12:26 am

Dear silly people. Unagi is not only the sauce but the eel itself that gives it its great flavor. The sauce is actually the flavor of the eel but just stronger and well theres no other way to put it, its just sauce, sauce always tastes good since its full of fat and salt. But have you ever had a freshwater eel by itself? The eel by itself tastes amazing infact it tastes it has the sauce but it is not drenched in it. Im saying that we should commercialize this eel so the wild ones can roam free and have their happy lives while the delicious skinny cows of the sea roam in our big fish tanks waiting to be sold. It is the best alternative than to hunt the wild ones to extinction

Apr 9, 2012 at 1:13 pm

People are still going to eat eel. I talked with a local sushi chef last week about it, he said that the growing demand for eel in China is significant enough that serious work’s being done on Aquaculturing them. The former Soviet Union has seen some success on both Marketable sized and Glass eels in recent years. We’ve seen advancements in Tilapia and Baramundi aquaponics, that’ll take some pressure off of wild populations and “hopefully” –as with salmon– give us an avenue of artificially agumenting wild populations with hatchery fish (not to suggest “farming” the eels in the manner that salmon are being farmed, but a hatchery situation that is entirely enclosed, farmed salmon is disgusting)

Jun 17, 2012 at 2:51 pm

Tonight is Fathers Day. We will be going to a local sushi restaurant where our entire family will be enjoying generous portions of bluefin tuna as well as eel.

It’s sad that they are so tasty, but if we don’t eat them tonight, someone else will. Then we will be sad and regret the fact that we had a chance to eat them but didn’t when they are extinct.

Jun 18, 2012 at 6:50 pm

@Sorry –

Thanks for your honesty. I suppose I will never understand this way of thinking.

Your decision to exacerbate the problem seems based on nothing but the assumption that “if you don’t, someone else will” — ergo “the world is going to keep getting worse and there’s nothing we can do about it, so we might as well join in.” You are of course free to live this way; nothing you are proposing is illegal, and morals and ethics are different for everyone.

I do hope you had a pleasant Father’s Day. To be honest, though, I am not sure how you go about enjoying any sort of celebration when you have this perspective on things. If I felt this way about the future, I’m not sure I could even get out of bed in the morning.

I hope one day we are both able to share the bounties of a healthier planet together.



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