July 27 is Unagi no hi, or Unagi day! Unagi, or barbecued freshwater eel, is readily available all over Japan. Besides sushi, this is probably my favorite Japanese food. If you get a really good place that selects its eel well and grills it over the coals just right it can be a fantastic meal. Often referred to as Kabayaki, the eel is deboned, filleted, and basted with a mixture of soy sauce, sugar, and sake before it is steamed and/or barbecued over an open flame. There are two styles of properly preparing unagi; Tokyo and Osaka. Probably more, but this is what I could find!
The major difference between them lies in Tokyo’s addition of steaming to the process. In Tokyo, the Unagi is barbecued, steamed, then brushed with sauce mixture, and then flamed broiled again. The steaming step removes excess fat, adds softness and a delicate to the eel. Osaka Style, on the other hand, consists of grilling the unagi over the open flame, basting in sauce, and repeating until the unagi reaches the perfect level of crispy char goodness. This style results in a stronger flavored, and supposedly more “masculine,” dish. In Nagoya, I am sure that both styles are probably available, but I have personally only seen the Osaka style used.
I personally favor the nagayaki style of eating Unagi, where the whole eel is grilled and served like a steak with rice, Japanese pickles, and unagi liver soup, but Nagoya people in general favor the Hitsumabushi style; which is what we will be talking about today.
Hitsumabushi is kind of like an unagi donburi, or eel rice-bowl, but the way it is eaten is a bit different than a standard donburi meal. Unagi donburi is usually just widely sliced unagi pieces placed on a bed of rice, and with the exception of adding some crushed Japanese green pepper corn called sansho, a bit more sauce, or dried seaweed, it is eaten as is. This is also a great way to eat unagi, but Hitsumabushi takes this basic formula and adds a bit more to it.
Hitsumabushi is served in a large bowl of rice topped with more finely chopped unagi, with several other toppings and condiments. Generally, these will include green onions, dried seaweed, wasabi, and grated leeks, and a container of dashi, or fish stock soup. In addition to this, the setting will include pickled vegetables, and an empty bowl and rice scoop. A soup will also be included, generally the unagi liver soup mentioned earlier, but not always. Sometimes it is an extra, and if so I highly recommend you spring for it.
There are of course many places around the city where you can find hitsumabushi. Here are a few that you might want to check out
Hōraiken is by far and away the most famous place for hitsumabushi in Nagoya. There is a branch next to the southern entrance of Atsuta-jingū, however the main branch is only a couple of blocks further south, and the traditional mansion style with tatami rooms has a better atmosphere. Be aware, you cannot reserve a table, and as such on peak days you should expect to wait in the queue.
Where: 503 Gōdo, Atsuta-ku (map)
Up on the 9th floor of the Meitetsu Building, Maruya Honten is careful with its selection, choosing only the fattiest of eels, and when it comes to hitsumabushi, the fattier the better. Not only that, but the blend of soy sauces in which the eels are grilled make for a complex, rich flavor.
Where: Nakamura-ku, Meieki 1-2-1, Meitesu Building 9th floor (map)
As the name suggests, the eel at Hitsumabushi Bincho is grilled over the renowned, high-quality bincho charcoal, giving it its distinctive taste, locking in the juiciness of the tender fish. There are two branches of right next to Nagoya station, one in the high rise Dai Nagoya Building, and one in the Esca underground shopping complex, with the former being a little fancier.
Where: Dai Nagoya Building 3F, Kakueki 3-28-12, Nakamura-ku (map)
Shirakawa is great for those who want to try hitsumabushi without breaking the bank. Usually a pretty pricy dish (around 4,000 JPY per head in most places), Shirakawa’s portions are generally a little smaller elsewhere, meaning the price, 2450 JPY, is a little nicer. They even do a ‘mini hitsumabushi’ at only 1,720 JPY. But worry not, though the price is low the quality remains as high as the other places mentioned, and the restaurant is particularly regarded for the dashi-tea they use in the ochazuke course.
Where: Sakae Gas Building B1, 3-15-33 Sakae, Naka-ku (map)
Quite a few restaurants in the Nagoya area serve up authentic Thai food, or ingredients. Thai food gets more popular every year in Japan, and you can bet there are more options than these out there, but none as popular with the foreign communities of Nagoya. Here we have three options for your perusal: 2 restaurants and a grocery store.
Another nice place to eat is Siam Garden, which is near the Hilton in Fushimi. The building is the coolest part about that location. I heard once that it used to be a Thai consulate many years ago, but it really looks like an old bank.
If a night out on the town is not what you seek, but the means to cook Thai food yourself then you will want to know about the small Thai grocery near Sakae. Chaiyaphum is very small, but it is the only place I have found where you can get Thai basil reliably. It’s a bit of a walk, but its worth it if you are in the market for Thai ingredients. The owner is Thai, and they do not speak any English, but they are very nice so stop in anyway!