24 October 2016
The best place to try freshwater eel is probably Atsuta Houraiken. Photo: Brendon Hong
The best place to try freshwater eel is probably Atsuta Houraiken. Photo: Brendon Hong

Eat this: Nagoya’s hitsumabushi

To understand why Nagoya (名古屋) may have the best, yet easily accessible, freshwater eel, a good thing to do is look at what goes on in a couple of other major cities of Japan.

Tokyo and Osaka seem to be engaged in constant competition.

It’s a jostling of stereotypes — Tokyo is an emotional desert, Osaka is warm and compassionate; Tokyo’s dialect is widely considered standard, Osaka’s is harsher but more melodic; the Giants are the best baseball team in Japan, but so are the Tigers.

That flavor of playful rivalry extends to their culinary senses as well. Think of it as a long-standing unagi feud. 

Tokyo’s unagi experts slice it open at the back, while their Osaka counterparts go for the belly. In Tokyo, unagi is broiled, steamed, glazed, then broiled again. Osaka’s forgoes the steaming, which creates something that tastes much more masculine.

One way isn’t better than the other. If your fish was handled by masterful hands, it could be prepared with either technique and you would enjoy it.

Nagoya, situated between the two cultural giants, is a little meek in comparison. It takes averages. However, in the case of broiled eel, that doesn’t lead to mediocrity.

Nagoya’s unagi chefs use Tokyo’s filet cut with Osaka’s broiling method to create what’s called hitsumabushi. It’s one of those special treats that you can’t miss if you’re in Nagoya. 

The best place to try it is probably Atsuta Houraiken (蓬萊陣屋), which has four locations in Nagoya. It’s a restaurant that’s 142 years old, one of those old and established names that guarantees a spectacular dining experience. For those who care, “hitsumabushi” is actually a registered trademark of Atsuta Houraiken.

Your eel will come with rice in a lidded wooden bowl. Consumption requires instructions, which the staff will gladly provide.

Divide your main course into quarters, and spoon one portion out into your empty porcelain rice bowl. Let the aroma envelope you. Eat it as is to appreciate the chefs’ mastery. Do not speak. Take a moment to consider the heavy glaze and hint of smoke in your mouth. Let the fish’s fats dissolve on your tongue. This is now your zero setting.

Remove the wooden lid again to serve yourself the second quarter. Top it with finely sliced green onions, thin strips of roasted nori and freshly grated wasabi. Let it be playful and bold and give you a little kick. A little green makes a world’s difference.

The third portion is mixed with the same greens, but also dashi stock to make ochazuke. By the time you’re here, you’ve already had two bowls of heavy food. The ochazuke subdues your eel’s sweetness and highlights the smoke. It also washes down those natural fats, cleanses your palate, and sets you up for an encore.

Your final portion is meant to be enjoyed in any manner you want. There is no wrong way to do it.

Put your shoes back on, and take the five-minute walk to Atsuta Shrine (熱田神宮). It’s one of the most famous Shinto shrines in Japan, with a museum that houses a good collection of ancient documents and other historic objects. Your meal gave you many calories to burn, so do it.

Just keep in mind that you had already made your pilgrimage earlier that day. It came in four stages, and every one was a pleasant peak taller than the last.

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Nagoya is the capital of Japan’s Aichi Prefecture. Photo: Brendon Hong

Atsuta Shrine (熱田神宮) is one of the most famous Shinto shrines in Japan. Photo: Brendon Hong

Freshwater eel comes with rice in a lidded wooden bowl. Photo: Brendon Hong

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