As part of my tribute to Little Known Japanese Holidays, I'd like to introduce you to one of my very favorites: Eel Eating Day -- in Japanese, 土用丑の日 doyou ushi no hi*, this year held on 23 July. (Another favorite is Dog Day, which takes place on November 1st. You don't do anything special on Dog Day, except mention it to others and see if they figure out that '11/1' said in Japan-ified English sounds like the Japanese onomatopeia for a dog barking -- 'wan wan wan'. Ah, the joy of language exchange...)
The word for 'eel' in Japanese is unagi, which conveniently begins with the hiraganga sound u, spelled う. This is convenient because う is readily made to look like an eel, thus giving the holiday added cuteness potential. This is very important for marketing. Few products survive in Japan without some element of cuteness to lend them gravitas. The fact that the Japanese advertisers can take an animal which looks like this:
And reinterpret it to look like this:
Shows you just what experts they are.
The idea behind the holiday is fairly straight-forward: here we are, in the height of summer, barely able to lift ourselves up off the tatami and stumble out into the near solid wall of heat and humidity. We are suffering from natsubate -- summer lethargy. Clearly what we need is a little stamina. As it so happens, unagi is a food chock-full of stamina guaranteeing properties (calcium, salt, protein, various vitamins... oh, and it's shaped like a phallus). So eat unagi, and bear up!
In Japan, people will tell you that eel is prepared on the grill, having been brushed with a mildly sweet sauce which caramelizes slightly as it cooks. This is true. What they do not tell you is that moments prior to the grilling, the eel is delivered to the chef quite alive, usually thrashing about with several of its friends and loved ones in a bucket. I still remember watching my Japanese father prepare eel for my very first Eel Eating Day in Japan: plunging his hand into a blue plastic kitchen bucket, he pulled out a wriggling eel, slapped it onto a wooden board in front of him held up with a couple of hobby horses, and used a hammer to drive a nail clean through the still-living eel's head into the board. He then quickly laid down the hammer and picked up a knife, slitting the eel down the belly from proverbial stem to stern. A quick whack to the eel's neck to sever head from body, a couple of deft thrusts with some metal skewers, and that baby was ready for the barbecue. For those more graphically inclined, you can see a picture of this process here.
Naturally, you don't need to wait for doyou ushi no hi to enjoy a meal of unagi. In fact, I would say this is the one Japanese food which boasts the unusual quality of being appropriate in any season. In Japan, just look for a variation of the following sign:
See how the う is drawn like an eel? This will let you know you've discovered an unagi restaurant. I plan to go out later with another FS colleague and see if we can't rustle up some unagi ourselves.
*This doesn't actually mention anything about eels, but rather indicates the 18th day prior to the change from summer to autumn as expressed in the chinese lunar calendar. There is a doyou prior to every change of season, but so far as I know only doyou ushi no hi has a specific food associated with it.