Eating eels: Tokyo's traditional summer tonic

Eating eels: Tokyo's traditional summer tonic

A classic unagi specialist delivers the stamina-boosting pick-me-up on Eel Day
Unagi -- Japanese eels
Golden-brown eel sits atop a traditional unaju dish in all its lacquerware glory.

It's that season again. As soon as the rains lift, the blistering summer sets in. Cue a good two months of lethargy and debilitation.

If you can't stand the heat get out of the city. If you have no choice but to stay, then take preemptive action.

Time to stoke up the energy levels: time for that traditional panacea, unagi kabayaki -- broiled eel.

Every year, there is one day in particular when eating eel is reputed to offer the biggest boost. And this year's designated day is July 27.

Technically, by the ancient Japanese calendar it's known as the Midsummer Day of the Ox; in practice, ever since the Edo period, it’s come to be known as Unagi no Hi, or "Eel Day."

Tradition personified

Unagi is not a high-class delicacy: it's a plebeian pleasure, best enjoyed in a traditional setting, preferably in the old shitamachi, the "low city" to the north and east of Ginza and Tokyo's glittering downtown.

Matsuyoshi qualifies perfectly.

Quite the opposite of a gourmet destination, it may be a bit battered and scuffed around the edges but it's the quintessential old-style neighborhood unagiya.

You’ll find it tucked away in Nihonbashi, among the imposing buildings of the Kabutocho district and just around the corner from the stock exchange.

The contrast couldn’t be bigger: Matsuyoshi is a holdout from the time when all houses were built of timber, and Tokyo was entirely low-rise.

Artisan architecture

Unagi -- Japanese eelsEel carvings decorate the door of Matsuyoshi.

Inside and out, it’s a modest shitamachi classic, if only for the fact is has survived at all.

The building itself dates from the 1950s, but the craftsmanship that went into it has a far longer pedigree.

Check out the carvings on the front door.

An eel entwines around the inset where you place your fingers to slide it open.

Close to ground level, eddies swirl around the motif of a stick placed in a slowly flowing river. This is the simple, honest work of old-style artisans.

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Preparation procedure

Unagi -- Japanese eelsAnd who doesn't have a handy bucket of live eels under the floorboards?Owner Enomoto-san has changed nothing inside or out since taking over the restaurant from his father. He also cooks his unagi in the time-honored way.

He keeps a bucket of live eels under the floorboards of his kitchen, fishing one out whenever a customer places an order.

He dispatches it deftly, slicing it into fillets, which he pierces with bamboo skewers.

He first grills them lightly over a simple charcoal grill, then steams them to soften up the flesh and release some of their oiliness.

Finally he sets the fillets back over the glowing coals and carefully broils them some more, dipping them from time to time in a vat of basting sauce to keep them from scorching and to imbue them with extra umami goodness.

This is the style of grilling known as kabayaki.

Serving style

Unagi -- Japanese eelsEels + charcoal + TLC = kabayaki.When the eel has turned an appetizing golden brown -- in Japanese the term is kitsune-iro, literally “fox color” -- it's ready.

The classic way of eating kabayaki is as unaju (sets from ¥2,000; US$26), served on a thick layer of rice in a rectangular lidded lacquerware box. 

Smaller portions are placed over rice in round donburi bowls (¥1,000).

Whichever style you choose, don't forget to sprinkle a little of the powdered sansho "pepper" to give the rich eel a little extra tongue-tingling lemony zing.

If you’ve ordered the full kabayaki works, you’ll also get a small bowl of clear broth, containing a single eel liver.

Known as kimo-jiru, this soup (along with the bitter, slightly rubbery liver itself) is credited with sharpening the eyesight, and is a fundamental part of this traditional "cure" for the summer heat.

End of an era

Unagi -- Japanese eelsA classic unaju serving. Don't forget the sansho pepper -- it's in the gourd-shaped shaker at the back.Unagi has been prepared this way since long before the city changed its name from Edo to Tokyo.

Sadly, the tradition may not last too much longer.

It's not just that neighborhoods have changed, and with them people's lifestyles and tastes.

Worse than that, in recent years, eel supplies have dwindled and prices have risen. Unagi is moving from an affordable anytime feast to a more occasional splurge.

So, with Unagi Day upon us, all the more reason to indulge in this excellent tradition, before the little local artisans like Matsuyoshi disappear forever.

Matsuyoshi, 9-5 Nihonbashi-Kabutocho, Chuo-ku, Tokyo;

+81 (0) 3 3666 0732. Open 11 a.m.-7 p.m. (or until sold out); closed Sunday and holidays.

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Robbie Swinnerton has been living, eating and writing about food in Tokyo for more than 30 years ...

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