Serious Eats: Recipes
The Nasty Bits: Dashi-Simmered Eel
This week, The Nasty Bits leaves the world of bones and innards and treks to the other side of nasty. Generally, this series chronicles the unconventional parts of conventionally eaten animals, but what if we examined entire animals that are just plain ugly? There are too many to name comprehensively, but a few candidates come to mind: furry guinea pigs, scaly alligators, armored armadillos, slithery snakes and eels, tiny birds like ortolan, twitchy squirrels, wart-covered sea cucumbers, and grasshoppers and other insects.
Whereas we may fondly gaze at the pig and think of bacon, or look at a cow and anticipate a steak, there's nothing ostensibly appetizing about the majority of the meat and seafood we eat. As Jared Diamond has argued, only a few animals on the planet (something like fourteen out of one hundred and forty-eight possible candidates) are suitable creatures for domestication. These are the animals that, over centuries of breeding and manipulation, have come to look like things we'd want to put in our mouths. On the other hand, the rest of what's edible in the animal kingdom is often unseemly and feral in appearance.
Eels are sly, wild creatures that look distinctly out of place in the kitchen. Nevertheless, their delicate meat, akin to a flaky and lean fish, is worth seeking out. I almost never turn down a chance to work with eel, so when I spied a water tank filled with the slithering creatures, I knew that dinner would involve some wrestling.
"You want them live?" asked the fishermonger, looking suspiciously down at me.
"Yep! Don't do anything to them; just put them in a bag for me," I responded cheerfully.
He shrugged and selected three eels squirming furiously under his grasp, and tossed them into a bag. Nestled in my canvas bag beneath pounds of fresh longan, the eels barely moved as I took them home from the Chinese market.
In the past, I had always watched with envy as my fishmongers gutted the eels. Why not me, I wondered. I'd steeled myself for the likelihood that the eels would be a slippery affair - still, as I poured the eels out of the bag and into the sink, I began to doubt my slaying prowess. Immediately upon contact, the eels began to slither quickly around the basin of the sink. Reaching desperately for any one of the three eels, I realized that I had no actual plan, logistically speaking, for how to gut them. I had vaguely assumed that if I could grasp the head of the eel with one hand, then I could chop off its head with the other. I hadn't counted on them being so slippery: as soon as I managed to get ahold of one section, the sheer sliminess of the eel would cause me to lose my grip.
Fuzzy memories from an episode of Frasier, in which the unflappable Crane boys start their own French restaurant and serve eel to a discerning customer, surfaced in my harried brain. Grasping the middle of the eel as tightly as I could, I slammed its head against the edge of the sink in the hopes of stunning my foe. No luck. Oblivious to my murderous intents, the eel writhed back into the sink to join its friends.
Eventually I grew accustomed to the slickness of the eel and learned how to better control its movements between my clasping fingers. Soon I could feel the strength of its muscles and bones moving within, like that of a frisky puppy or ferret. When I finally managed to penetrate its slimy skin, a gush of cherry red blood poured forth in quantities larger than I had imagined. I removed its intestines with ease, but the blood seemed to emerge from nowhere, constantly oozing out even after several washes in water. At last, with the blood cleaned, I soaked the eels in a bath of extremely hot water to remove the slimy film on the surface of its skin and prepared for phase two: cooking.
Eels come in all shapes and sizes, from the tiny worm-like river eels in southern China to the large, freshwater eels (unagi) that the Japanese use for unadon. In addition to unagi, the Japanese also deep-fry their saltwater eel (anago) in a tempura batter, thereby preserving the juicy and flaky meat within. The tiny river eels in Shanghai are often sautéed with yellow chives - a common topping for a bowl of soupy noodles. Italians grill their eel over charcoal until the skin is crisp and crackling with rendered fat. (Of course, other cuisines have their own recipes for eel; as a matter of practicality, I can only mention the eel dishes I've had the fortune to eat).
As for my three eels, I simmered them slowly with fatty cubes of pork shoulder in a braise consisting primarily of dashi, sake, and Japanese soy sauce. In Shanghai, eel and pork are common combinations in a red-braised dish. I prefer to use dashi in place of water and sake in place of Chinese rice wine. Perhaps it's all the umami from the kelp in the stock, but a Chinese red braise never quite tastes as savory to me as that made with dashi. Served with a bowl of fluffy rice, the eel was lean yet moist, its meat peeling right off each segment of its skeleton. Lending a bit of gelatin and body to the braise, the fatty cubes of pork were more complex, having been ennobled by the eel and dashi. Phase three: eating.
Dashi-Simmered Eel and Pork
About the author: Chichi Wang took her degree in philosophy, but decided that writing about food would be much more fun than writing about Plato. She firmly believes in all things offal, the importance of reading great books, and the necessity of three-hour meals. If she were ever to get a tattoo, it would say "Fat is flavor." Visit her blog, My Chalkboard Fridge.