Edo Eel and the Start off of a Summertime Tradition

Eel was mentioned to be just one of the massive four meals of the Edo time period (1603–1868), when the tradition of taking in it in summer started. A look at the culinary customs of the time by way of Kitagawa Morisada’s modern day writings.

A Hearty Meal of Eel

The huge four foodstuff of the Edo time period (1603–1868) are reported to be soba, sushi, tempura, and unagi (freshwater eel). The final of these was served in a very distinct style when compared with currently, and diverse in the east and west of Japan.

In Morisada mankō (Morisada’s Sketches) by the author Kitagawa Morisada, he consists of a picture—see the major of the article—showing eel on rice, as was commonly served in Edo from the 1830s to the 1860s. It sells for 200 mon—taking 1 mon as about the very same as ¥12, this would be ¥2,400, or really equivalent to existing selling prices.

As Morisada describes it, on top of the rice there are 5 or 6 pieces of eel about 9 centimeters lengthy each individual, and then a more layer of rice with a topping of 6 or seven modest eels. A dozen or so morsels of unagi created for a hearty meal.

Street distributors termed botefuri bought only kabayaki eel, which had been grilled and dipped in sauce. They carried them utilizing a yoke on their shoulders, with the fish and other substances in bins hooked up to cords on the two sides. When stopped by a client, the botefuri would just take out an eel from the box and skewer and grill it on the spot.


Tempting aromas must have attracted other passers-by to make buys. From Morisada mankō (Morisada’s Sketches). (Courtesy the Countrywide Diet regime Library)

In Kyoto and Osaka, one skewer of eel marketed by vendors would go for 6 mon (¥72), but in Edo the cost was 16 mon (¥192). These fast-foods charges were being considerably more economical than these for foods in dining establishments. The variation in price in between the cities was due to the reality that in Edo, distributors performed more get the job done to take away the significant bones, though in western Japan, eel was sold with the bones still in.

There is an open-air eel stall in the woodblock print Jōrurimachi hanka no zu (Flourishing Small business in Balladtown) by Utagawa Hiroshige. A pair grills unagi, while a female of the neighborhood seems to be on, carrying a tray. Despite the fact that there is no price tag on display screen, as fare aimed at the widespread people of the town, it possibly value about the similar as that sold by vendors.

Cooking eel to sell on the spot. From Jōrurimachi hanka no zu (Flourishing Business in Balladtown) by Utagawa Hiroshige. (Courtesy the National Diet Library)
Cooking eel to offer on the spot. From Jōrurimachi hanka no zu (Flourishing Business enterprise in Balladtown) by Utagawa Hiroshige. (Courtesy the Countrywide Eating plan Library)

A Dependable Manufacturer

In the Edo period, unagi have been broadly divided into all those classed as Edomae and those people from somewhere else. These latter had been also known as tabiunagi, or “traveling eel,” and have been regarded reduced position. Eel grew to become massively well-liked in Edo from all-around the middle of the eighteenth century, and the area wide variety proven itself as a trusted manufacturer.

Although there is no business definition, all fish and seafood caught in Tokyo Bay is now typically identified as Edomae. The term Edomae, having said that, initially referred to the sea in front of Edo Castle (now Tokyo’s Imperial Palace), alongside a line connecting Haneda to exactly where the mouth of the Edogawa river utilized to be (now to the east of Tokyo Disney Vacation resort). At the time, an inlet arrived appropriate up to the castle, so catches of refreshing fish went promptly to the tables of the shōgun’s relatives and samurai, and seafood eaten in the course of the metropolis. The Japanese eel, which now faces the threat of extinction, was at the time brought ashore in this place, exactly where residential tower blocks cluster currently.

In Shokunin-zukushi ekotoba (Illustrated Story of Craftsmen), published in 1805, there is a photo of an eel restaurant with a indication advertising and marketing Edomae grilled eel. “We really don’t have any tabiunagi. It’s all Edomae,” a lady informs customers with a self-contented air.

Many visitors to Edo would make sure to try the local eel. From Shokunin-zukushi ekotoba (Illustrated Story of Craftsmen). (Courtesy the National Diet Library)
Quite a few readers to Edo would make guaranteed to test the local eel. From Shokunin-zukushi ekotoba (Illustrated Tale of Craftsmen). (Courtesy the Countrywide Food plan Library)

We do not basically know how a lot of a variation in quality there was between the two varieties of eel.

Just one idea suggests that eels were being reduce open along the stomach in a design and style regarded as harabiraki in Kyoto and Osaka, but this appeared inauspiciously close to the seppuku system of suicide for Edo, a metropolis of samurai, so the sebiraki fashion of splitting the again designed there. Even so, an additional speculation is that sebiraki arrived initially in equally east and west, but harabiraki was introduced afterwards as more suited to the prosperous grilled eel delicacies that evolved from Kyoto. By the way, it was not until the Meiji period (1868–1912) that unagi was steamed before remaining grilled, so this is a variance involving the eel delicacies of the Edo period of time and these days.

The greatest variation in east and west came in the seasoning. Morisada’s Sketches describes how Edo folks mixed soy sauce with mirin (sweet sake) for a comprehensive-flavored sauce. In Kyoto and Osaka, mirin was replaced by shirozake, which is created by adding shōchū or mirin to kōji mold and fermenting. Put together with a lighter soy sauce, it produced for a lighter and sweeter blend than that in Edo.

Fastidious Restaurant Owners

Dining establishments that marketed large-finish eel had been individual about who they served. Morisada describes how renowned institutions like Fukagawaya in Edo and Torihisa in Osaka would not easily welcome new consumers, no make any difference how loaded they were being.

If they could not procure eel that fulfilled their specifications, they would also near their doorways for many times. These kinds of exacting cafe proprietors are not a recent phenomenon, and have been close to for hundreds of years.

Harukiya Zenbei, one more famed cafe, is thought by some to have instigated the long-long lasting tradition of consuming eel on doyō no ushi no hi. The working day of the ox in the course of the 18 days previous the commencing of autumn is a date in the classic calendar that takes place the moment or two times in late July or early August.

In Edo kaimono hitori annai (A Private Information to Procuring in Edo), published in 1824, Harukiya Zenbei is credited with setting up the tradition. The selection of essays Meiwashi also states that it began about the 1770s or 1780s, which is consistent with this concept.

Harukiya Zenbei (left) was in what is now the municipality of Chiyoda. From Edo kaimono hitori annai (A Personal Guide to Shopping in Edo). (Courtesy the National Diet Library)
Harukiya Zenbei (left) was in what is now the municipality of Chiyoda. From Edo kaimono hitori annai (A Private Guideline to Shopping in Edo). (Courtesy the Nationwide Diet plan Library)

As to why the date was assumed of as propitious for unagi, a folk tradition has it that feeding on foodstuff starting with u on ushi no hi allows in beating the warmth of summer months. There is a properly-identified story that polymath Hiraga Gennai advised the plan to a cafe owner as a way of boosting gross sales.

There is no company proof as to which was the originator, on the other hand, and Morisada’s Sketches does not touch on the tradition at all.

(Initially released in Japanese on November 15, 2020. Banner illustration: Eel on rice, as generally served in Edo. From Morisada mankō (Morisada’s Sketches). Courtesy the Nationwide Diet regime Library.)