Unagi (うなぎ) is freshwater eel. Not to be confused with anago (saltwater eel), unagi has a rich, fatty flavor that lends itself well to grilling. Unagi may be prepared in a variety of ways, but the most popular style is called kabayaki in which the unagi fillets are grilled and basted in a savory sweet sauce. Places famous for unagi dishes include Lake Hamanakako, Tokyo and Narita.

Unagi is served year round; however, it is especially popular during the summer months due to properties thought to increase stamina and heat tolerance. Grilled unagi is almost always accompanied by a container of powdered sansho (Japanese pepper) which has a strong, astringent flavor that helps balance the fattiness of the eel. Take care to use sansho sparingly lest it overpower the dish.

Unagi is most commonly served as one of the following dishes:

Unaju (unagi box)

Unaju (うな重) consists of grilled eel fillets served with cooked rice in a rectangular, lacquered box. The dish is usually served in a set together with a clear soup that contains some of the eel's innards.

Unadon (unagi rice bowl)

Unadon (うな丼) is essentially the same dish as unaju with the main difference that unadon is served in a bowl instead of a lacquered box.

Hitsumabushi (Nagoya style unadon)

Hitsumabushi (ひつまぶし) is a Nagoya specialty in which bite-sized pieces of grilled unagi are served over rice. Hitsumabushi is eaten in four steps: the first portion is eaten straight with rice, the second with rice and condiments, the third with broth or tea to make chazuke, and the fourth however you like best.

Unagi Nigiri (unagi sushi)

Unagi is also used in sushi dishes, especially nigiri sushi, in which a thin piece of grilled eel is served on top of a ball of sushi rice. The savory-sweet dish can be a good introduction to sushi for those who are hesitant to try raw seafood. A piece of unagi sushi costs around 100 to 500 yen per piece at cheaper sushi restaurants.

Where to find unagi

Unagi is best experienced at unagi specialty restaurants called unagi-ya, but it can also be occasionally found at other restaurants, such as shokudo. Typically available from around 3000 yen, unagi is a relatively expensive dish, and a recent drop of unagi populations inside and outside of Japan is unlikely to change that situation anytime soon.