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Eels Are the Slippery Link Between Japanese and British Cuisine

“Eels are rich in vitamins and give us energy to fight against the heat and last the summer,” says chef Junya Yamasaki as he and James Lowe prepare to cook a dinner that celebrates the fish’s place in British and Japanese cuisine.

by Gareth May
03 August 2015, 10:00am

All photos by the author.

When I meet chef Junya Yamasaki, he is visibly knackered.

"Eel really is a pain in the ass to prepare," he says, shaking his head and downing a tumbler of cold water, his sleek black ponytail ricocheting off his whites.

Yamasaki has the look of a man who's been up until four in the morning wrestling with wild eel—if there is such a look—his natural puckish mannerisms strained by the hours and heat of the kitchen.

READ MORE: London's Dining Scene Is Killing Off Jellied Eel Shops

We're sitting in Lyle's, East London, the venue for his last London supper. On Thursday he's leaving, having spent five years in the British capital wooing eaters with his small plates of Japanese dishes at Koya, which closed with the announcement of his homecoming in late spring. But London's loss is Japan's gain. Yamasaki will return to his hometown Hyojo on the outskirts of Osaka to his mother and a "spiritual holiday" spent fishing and generally forgetting the hot humdrum of his restaurant kitchen. For a while, at least.

Before Yamasaki leaves, he's got one last dinner to serve and he wants to make it count. On the day of my visit, Lyle's is gearing up to host its second Doyo No Ushi, a day Japan traditionally dedicates to eating eel and, in this case, a celebration of the fish in both Japanese and British cooking.

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Chef Junya Yamasaki. All photos by the author.

"We have a long tradition to eat eel in Japan on a traditional day in July or August to prepare for the hot summer," Yamasaki explains. "Eels are rich in vitamins and summer in Japan is so hot you lose your energy, you get tired, some people get ill. Eels give us energy to fight against the heat and last the summer."

It's the second time Lyle's has hosted Yamasaki and his Doyo No Ushi. This time though, the focus is on British cuisine, partly so he can pay homage in his farewell to his adopted home and also to shine a light on Britain's wild eels and traditional—and forgotten—eel-eating history.

"In England, especially London, eel is a more traditional food but people stopped eating it and I think it's a shame it's disappearing," Yamasaki says, referring to jellied eels and smoked eel which he says isn't common at all in Japan.

"I wish people to come with a lot of curiosity," he continues, his limbs and features resurrected as he speaks passionately about the fascinating scribble of a creature he clearly feels so strongly about.

He describes eel has a "delicate, river fish taste" and when I rather awkwardly offer up the word "minerally," he laughs.

Eels are rich in vitamins and summer in Japan is so hot you lose your energy, you get tired, some people get ill. Eels give us energy to fight against the heat and last the summer.

"You can say mineral or you can say muddy. That's nature," Yamasaki explains, telling me, with an approving smile, that the first time he tasted beetroot, a vegetable uncommon to his native Japan, "it was like eating earth."

There are fewer smiles when the conversation shifts to sustainability, though—Japan simply doesn't have a good track record. In 2013 the Japanese Ministry of the Environment officially added freshwater unagi to its red list of endangered fish after figures revealed the eel population was just 5 percent of what it was in the 60s.

Meanwhile, on these shores, eel consumption has declined by 95 percent in the last 25 years.

For those that do (regularly) eat eel in any part of the world, what they're putting in their mouths usually isn't wild. Yamasaki says almost 90 percent of the eels eaten in Japan are farmed and it's a similar story here.

"The numbers are in massive decline," says James Lowe, Lyle's co-owner and head chef. "Instead of catching in the wild, farming took over [at a time when] people were less bothered about whether something was farmed or something was wild."

He shakes his head. "I don't use farmed. There are questions over how sustainable it is. There's a worry they're picking too many elvers [baby eels] out of the water in Spain, France, and Italy."

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Yamasaki's English Shanghai hairy crab dish.

Despite the worry, the demand for farmed far outstrips the demand for wild. Lowe says the Dutch monopolise the European market, producing eels that are the same weight and size, rendering them easier to smoke with an equal cooking time than less uniform wild eels. As Lowe adds snidely: "Farmed eels all cook at the same time whereas wild eels vary, so why would you want to bother with them?"

As for tonight, only wild eels (from Lincolnshire) will do.

"It's important to preserve culture as well as nature," Yamasaki says, adding that he hopes holding a British inspired Doyo No Ushi will put the eel back on London's radar, while raising awareness surrounding sustainability.

Whether such suppers will banish the "poor food" connotations of jellied eels "in our prepackaged and sanitised era of food," as Lowe puts it in, remains to be seen.

But a mouthful into the first dish—Yamasaki's take on the classic East End fodder served with chili vinegar, sansho leaf, and mashed potato—and I'm a convert. Just as he described it, fresh wild eel tastes like river, specifically that first head-dunk under the water, when the senses seemingly drown in Mother Nature's coolant. Gulped down with the mashed potato, a quivering lip of jelly, and the clean heat of the sansho leaf and chili, this is a dish of Anglo-Japanese perfection.

READ MORE: James Lowe and James Henry Have Created an Edible Bromance

The dishes come thick and fast after that, like an oncoming current: Eel bone, soft-boiled egg and celery salt, eel offal, skin and girolles, eel and cocoa bean soup, grilled eel, horseradish, and bitter leaf salad. And in among the eel dishes, there's another plate that stands out: English Shanghai hairy crab, an eel by-catch and an invasive species left uneaten in Britain but hugely popular in China.

It's a vibrant dish, if a little finicky to eat, but served with an Earl Grey finger bowl, it's the epitome of something otherworldly with a ceremonial element.

As I marry my knife and fork one last time I wonder whether Britain will ever have the fish-eating culture of Japan. Probably not. It would be pretty optimistic to think we could catch up with a country that has spent almost its entire past as pescetarian.

But for an island people that at one time loved their eel, Lowe and Yamasaki's updated take on Doyo No Ushi is a pretty impressive legacy.