Eating eelectric

Courtesy of The Hilton Tokyo

Matt Wilce samples some shockingly good summer fare.

Loved by Londoners who jelly them or bake them in a pie and equally adored by Tokyoites who pile them atop rice, marinate them in sweet sauces and grill them, the eel isn't much to look at, but it packs a tasty punch. Tradition has it that unagi (freshwater eel) can provide a boost of stamina to combat the sweltering heat of July and August, and their fatigue fighting properties make them a popular seasonal delicacy. Since it became known that eel is especially high in vitamin E, brain-activating DHA and blood vessel-strengthening EPA, unagi sales have soared even further.

In Kanto the preferred way to prepare eel is to grill them over charcoal and then steam the fillets to remove excess fat. The unagi is then slathered in a rich, sweet sauce and grilled a second time to crisp the skin. Kansaijin just grill their eel as they prefer an even crisper skin.

The best eel shops keep tanks of their live fare, which are quickly skinned and prepared to order, so expect to wait a while. Don't feel too sorry for the unagi, according to Cuthbert Bede's adage, though its unpleasant at first, they get used to being skinned alive. These days you're likely to dine out on farmed eels, but naturally wild unagi make a better dish. Also watch out for anago, the eel's ocean dwelling cousin, that more commonly appears on sushi menus. So this summer, head to the old shitamachi area and sample some traditional Tokyo fare-it could be the ultimate power lunch. Or look out for the eel-like "u" for unagi on the entrance to your neighborhood eel shop, and stock up on stamina as the city heats up.

A stamina building dish of uzaku
Matt Wilce

This little family-run gem dates back to the Edo era and prepares some of the best unaju in town making it great for lunch or a post-festival treat. As the owners prepare every dish to order, take the chance to slow down and do things Edo-style. The small interior is full of charm but short on seats so reservations are highly advised - during the Sanja matsuri, the line often stretches down the street.
2-8-4 Kaminarimon, Asakusa, Taito-ku (03-3844-2723). Open noon-2pm and 5pm-8pm Mon-Sat, 5pm-8pm Sun, Nearest stn: Asakusa

Unagi Hirai
For a different take on eel try this small unagi shop's unadon topped with a generous helping of sticky yamaimo potato. Inspired by the popular dish oyakodon (chicken and eggs over rice), the unique combination was created by owner Hirai Kazuo and won an award for best "stamina don" on the TV show "Oishiimubo Kurabu."
3-4-18 Ginza, Chuo-ku (03-3567-7001). Open 11:30am-1:45pm and 5:30pm-8:45pm Mon-Fri, 11:30am-7pm Sat, closed Sun and holidays. Nearest stn: Ginza

With its entrance surrounded by greenery, Unagihama offers a spot of tranquillity among the busy streets of Yotsuya. Every lunchtime for the last 36 years the grills have been packed with over 100 skewers of fresh eel. The blend of shoyu and mirin (sweet rice wine) used to make the sauce is a family recipe that is known in the neighborhood for the way it perfectly compliments the unagi.
7 Arakicho, Shinjuku-ku (03-3359-9786). Open 11am-2pm and 5pm-8pm Mon-Sat, closed Sun and holidays. Nearest stn: subway Yotsuya-sanchome

Miyojinshita Kandagawa Honten
Currently run by the 12th family member, this classic unagi-shop started out in the Edo period and is housed in a small Japanese house. Take a seat in one of the seven tatami rooms - make sure to have reserved a table - and sample the unaju, slathered with the sauce made from a 200-year-old recipe.
2-5-11 Sotokanda, Chiyoda-ku (03-3251-5031). Open 11:30am-2pm and 5pm-8pm Mon-Sat, closed Sun and holidays. Nearest stn: Ochanomizu

Musashino, Hilton Tokyo
The Hilton Tokyo's Japanese restaurant Musashino will offer a seasonal menu of eel specialties until August 31. In addition to an unaju set that includes a seasonal side dish, eel liver soup and pickles, seven a la carte dishes will be available for lunch and dinner. Look out for the tasty and healthy combination of burdock and eel in the Yahatamaki or try the light uzaku - soused eel and cucumber.
6-2 Nishi-Shinjuku 6-chome (03-3344-5111). Open 11:30am-3pm and 5:30pm-10:30pm. Nearest stn: subway Nishi-Shinjuku

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Ultimate unagi

--  grilled eel over rice in a donburi bowl

Unaju -- grilled eel on rice served in a lacquer box

Kimoyaki --  grilled eel livers

Kabayaki -- skewered grilled eel

Shirayaki -- plain grilled eel without sauce

Uzaku -- grilled eel and cucumber with soy dressing

Yahatamaki -- simmered burdock wrapped in eel