Often enjoyed in dishes such as Kabayaki or Hitsumabushi, eel is one of the essential ingredients in Japan’s food culture. However, wild eels are an endangered species and closed hunting seasons have been established to limit the amount that are captured. Incidentally, wild eels account for less than 0.3% of the total amount of eels circulated within Japan.
Most domestic eels must be cultivated in captivity, however even if they are cultivated it is necessary to capture and raise “glass eels”, which are young eels. These “glass eels” have drastically declined due to climate change and overfishing, and the scarcity of domestic eels has gradually made them a high-value product.
Organically raised eels
Within Japan, the largest volume of domestically cultivated eels comes from Kagoshima Prefecture, and the company responsible for this is Yamada Suisan Co. Ltd, which has numerous eel markets and factories all throughout Kyushu. Yamada Suisan has been in the eel culturing/processing business since 1963 and is frequently the topic of news as a result of their recent push for agrochemical-free eel culturing, their development of the previously unheard of “frozen unaju”, and their advancement into Southeast Asia that started with Thailand.
If you drive about an hour and a half from Kagoshima Airport you’ll arrive in a tranquil rural area where the plastic greenhouses that house the eel culturing areas will definitely catch your eye.
There are 5 different eel culturing areas with a total of 38 base ponds inside for young eels, and a total of 131 ponds outside for adult eels, adding up to a total of 169 total ponds; all of the premises are paved with concrete. By making the pools concrete, the eels can’t bite into them like they would with earth, and they also don’t smell of mud. The reason this is possible is due to the blessing of a large underground water source.
The flavor of eels strongly varies with what they eat and where they live, which means that frequently no two eels are ever the same. By putting eels that eat a lot and eels that eat very little into different groups in order to raise them, it guarantees even flavor across all eels. The “Eel Masters” are said to be able to discern the nature of eels within 40 days.
The live eels brought here live in water that is clean enough for humans to drink; they are exposed to this fresh water for 48 hours while in a draining basket; all of the water that passes through the basket is drainage, and the always-clean underground water cleanses the eels inside and out. The practice of running this clean water over the eels is directly connected to their internal purity and lack of bad odors.
Before the live eels are cut up, they are put into a state of suspended animation via ice water. Of course the water and ice used in this process is also underground water. They are bound and shocked with electricity, killing them instantly and painlessly while also stopping their blood flow in order to ensure that their freshness is not compromised.
In the cutting area there are normally 10~20 people slicing the eels open to extract their bones and innards. The eels are carefully cut open 1 at a time by hand, using a single cut from the top of their head in order to preserve their head shape and the way they look when cooked.
A fixation with cooked eel
While you’re in the manufacturing area, the alluring scent of cooked eel wafts through the air. It’s like a whole line of eel restaurants all started cooking eels at the same time. Each processing area has a well-balanced variety of cooking methods, including gas-cooking, charcoal-cooking, and electric cooking. By utilizing time-tested methods, the flavor of the eels is thoroughly brought out through the cooking process.
After the live eels are processed it takes about 1 hour and 20 minutes for them to reach a stage where they can be sold, and we were fascinated by the variety of highly-polished skills on display.
Perfect eel bentos (lunch boxes)
Despite the fact that these eel bentos are frozen you can tell they’ve had a high degree of care put into them; you cook them in a microwave for 5 minutes and then steam them for 3 minutes, and within no time at all you can easily enjoy a bento with Kabayaki. This is a groundbreaking invention, as normally Kabayaki is much more difficult to cook, and is not something you would think could be frozen while still retaining its flavor.
The eel in the Kabayaki has no muddy flavor and the eel meat is plump with an orthodox flavor that anyone could enjoy. The tare sauce has a clear and rich flavor. The slightly firm and sticky rice is also delicious. The rice used is mature rice called “Yumeshizuku”, which is a special mature rice produced via a patented process in Karatsu, Saga Prefecture. The rice is washed with natural water and is mixed with the specially made tare sauce, then carefully cooked one pot at a time. The rice absorbs the tare sauce and splendidly harmonizes with the flavor of the Kabayaki.
Content Collaborator: Yamada Suisan Co. Ltd, Ariake Office