Find Japan's Original Grilled Unagi Eel in Saitama
Rich in flavor, savory and a little sweet - unagi kabayaki, or grilled eel, has been understandably popular in Japan for hundreds of years. The dish's expert origins, however, lay in Saitama Prefecture, just northwest of Tokyo. With our interest piqued and our mouths watering, we headed to the Urawa neighborhood of Saitama City to find out more.
What is Unagi Kabayaki?
Eel has been popular in Japan for many years, and in the past few decades there have even been times when 70% of the world's eel catch was eaten in Japan. It's especially ubiquitous in summer, when certain days are essentially designated eel days. Japan takes the advice of an Edo period doctor, and people eat eel to, supposedly, stay healthy through the months of heat.
The most common preparation of unagi (うなぎ), or river eel, is called "kabayaki" (蒲焼), where it's grilled and glazed with a sweet sauce. That might sound simple enough, but don't let the short description fool you. It's a fairly laborious process! The eel is carefully gutted and deboned, before it's butterflied and cut into shorter, more practical pieces. Then comes the good part, when the eel fillets are stuck onto wooden skewers, broiled on a charcoal grill, dipped into the soy-sauce based glaze, and grilled some more to cook in the flavor and add texture. The result is both tender and flaky unagi, with satisfyingly crispy edges and a deep, satisfying flavor.
The History of This Delicious Eel Dish
& Unagi Kabayaki Today
Similar styles of grilled eel might have popped up here and there around Japan, but Saitama's glazed variety is now the standard across the country. Back in Edo times (1603 - 1868), the Urawa area of what is now Saitama City was marshy, and laced with rivers abundant in fish. The eels were originally caught by casual fishers, hobbyists and those out on the riverbanks for pleasure. But the distinct texture of the eel started a local following, and Urawa's chefs developed their decadently delicious grilled eel recipes, resulting in unagi kabayaki. Not far from the area, the Nakasendo Trail (one of Japan's historic main roads, which we've written about before) brought travelers into the area. It's said that sometimes those going along the Nakasendo would journey out of their way just to try the increasingly famous unagi, so we can probably thank the historic highway for spreading the recipe near and far, as well!
Thanks to rice paddy cultivation in the early 20th century, and then eventual encroaching urbanization, the eel population of the Urawa area of Saitama isn't what it used to be. But that hasn't diminished the culture of excellent local eel chefs, who train for years to make the perfect kabayaki. Replete with satisfying grill marks, glistening with sweet soy glaze, the butterflied eels of Saitama are just begging to be laid over a bed of fresh white rice and placed in front of a waiting diner!
So whether you're in Saitama for the Rugby World Cup this year, touring the best spots in the prefecture, or just taking a day trip from Tokyo, we recommend you make a stop in Saitama City to try Japan's best eel! There are shops all over the Urawa neighborhood that still specialize in the dish, so just drop in and find the busiest eel eatery. You won't regret it - we sure didn't.
⇩ Watch unagi kabayaki being made, below. ⇩
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