Eel economics: Why unagi is so popular (and expensive)
Tips and features on making, saving and spending yen in Japan.
July 26 is Unagi Day (doyo no ushi no hi) and crowds of Unagi fans stand patiently in queues to have their unagi freshly prepared for them.
Typically they wait an hour or so, as live eels are killed just prior to cooking and grilled over hot charcoal. Unagi is a precious treat, made more so now that eel fry is increasingly rare to get. Unagi farms in Japan and outside Japan depend on adult eels in the wild laying eggs in the sea and when these eggs hatch, they swim only into the conducive waters off Japan to grow. Funnily enough, adults unagi live in freshwater but they lay eggs in the sea. According to this article, this behaviour is exactly the opposite of salmon, who famously swims upstream in raging rivers to lay their eggs.
Little wonder why really good unagi is well worth the wait. The cost of unagi is fast rising too.
Before patronizing any unagi restaurant, it is best to pick up the phone and enquire critically: whether their unagi are live and killed as orders come through!