Kabayaki is the traditional Japanese grilling method for eel that includes filleting, deboning, butterflying, skewering, marinating, and then grilling. Grilled unagi and anago has been enjoyed throughout Japan since the Edo Period and is often served with rice. But depending on the region, the grilling technique differs – in Kanto (Eastern Japan) the eel is grilled, steamed to remove fat, and then grilled again to ensure tender, soft meat. In Kansai (Western Japan, including Kyoto and Osaka), the eel is only grilled but for a longer period of time, which results in an extra crispy exterior.
After sashimi, grilling accounts for one of the widest food categories in Japan, but Japanese grilling techniques are quite different from the rest of the world. Binchotan is predominantly used as it burns cleanly at a higher heat for a longer period of time and charcoal grilling has long been a part of Japan’s culinary history. In other countries, where fish and meat are usually cooked in dry heat, Japan likes to utilize an open flame.
With Kabayaki, the eel is gutted and deboned using a special technique. It’s never served raw as the blood can be toxic, but no part of the eel goes to waste. The bones can be fried to mimic chips, the innards can be used for soup, and the fillets of meat are skewered and fanned over the grill. Before grilling, however, the meat is marinated in a special tare sauce made of soy sauce, sake, mirin, and sugar. Throughout the grilling process, the eel is basted with that same sauce for seasoning. It’s grilled over high heat to ensure crispiness on the outside and tender, moist meat on the inside. The key to grilling eel is knowing when to remove it from the heat to stop the cooking – heat should help form a crispy outside but barely reach the center.
Traditionally, eel is eaten during the summer season, and especially during the hottest days of the year because its nutritional content is most essential when you’re hot/sweating. Eel is rich in Vitamin B1, which is lost through sweat, so it helps to restore energy in the body. Grilled eel is rich and savory and can be seasoned with sansho pepper to add a kick and help cut the oiliness of the meat. Although Kabayaki is very popular throughout Japan, several species of Japanese eel have been added to the red list of threatened species, making eel a highly unsustainable food source.