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Eel Use: Ancient and Modern

by Jacqueline M. Newman

Fish and Seafood

Fall Volume: 2002 Issue: 9(4) page(s): 5, 30, 31, and 34


When Westerners think of eel, they see it grilled and in Japanese restaurants. Many people order it when their buddies eat sushi. They think it new and novel, and they like it. Do they know how ancient it is? Do they think of it as a salt-water creature? Eel can be from saline water, and it can be from many rivers that are not salt water. Some grow in both but at different times in their life cycle, others are raised only in fresh water. Like shrimp, the fresh water eel varieties are sweeter in flavor and softer in texture.

The culinary use of this squirmy creature is truly ancient. It was one of thirteen species mentioned in the Shih Ching or the Book of Odes written about the 11th to 7th centuries BCE. Mentioned at the same time were sturgeon, snout fish, carp, lucky fish, roach, rudd, bream, mud fish, long fish, tench, yellow jaw, and another variety of tench. This early volume not only mentions these fish but also describes various ways to catch them such as using a pole, a net, and/or a trap.

In Chinese, eel is called sha or shan, and the Chinese tell many tales, mythical and otherwise, about them. In the mythical category, one told is about Jiang-Shen, who was known as the God of the Yangtze River. He supposedly plugged a leaky boat stuffing an eel into the hole as water rushed in. This creative act saved the boat and kept its occupants from drowning.

Another tale advises that if you come upon a snake consuming an eel tail first, watch and wait a moment. Then, when all but the last part of the eel has gone down the gullet, grab a knife and cut off the head of the eel. Take the head with you because keeping it brings a steady income and much luck. Toting this head assures winning at games. There are other tall stories including one about a minister of mythical Emperor Gong-gong who thought himself an eel. When there was a flood, people say he made it happen so he could swim away.

More tales and talkers see and speak of eels in paintings, embroidery, and in many more stories. Eel when seen or spoken about has sexual connotations. A yellow eel is usually a reference to a homosexual. Other times any eel is a polite way to discuss a man’s penis.

All real eels are not alike, they can be one of many species. In the Science & Civilization in China Volume VI:5; the series begun by and credited to Joseph Needham, in this volume by H.T. Huang one learns that the eel in the Shih Ching is Rhinoglobis guirnius in the family Gobiidae. Others refer to eel as Leptochephalus, Anguilliformes, or Muraenes ocidae. As there are so many different species, one might humorously say that studying eel is a slippery situation.

From the consumption perspective, taste differences are more due to habitat, than species, though the amount of fat in different species does make for taste and textual differences. Usually, eel skin is not consumed. Most of the fat lies in and just beneath this skin and even when considerable, not everyone can taste subtle differences. This is particularly true when eel flesh is cooked without the skin. Other differences exist including whether the eel is found in fresh or salt water. The most common one is age, younger ones are sweeter. Another important difference includes how the eel is prepared.

Mature eels usually live in fresh water and when ready to spawn, swim downstream to salt water to lay their eggs and die. People claim differences when they raise the larvae and finger lings in fresh or in salt water. In the wild, depending upon location and breed, the small fingerlings swim back to fresh water to live most all of their lives. Common varieties, fresh or salt, include Japanese, European, and American eels, gray eels, swamp eels, moray eels, dragon-tooth pike eels, and many others.

Catching these slippery swimmers is easiest when using baskets. Gutting and skinning them requires know-how. In an earlier issue of Flavor and Fortune, specifically in Volume 3(1) on pages 5 and 19, Irving Beilin Chang wrote a short piece about eels and provided a delicious recipe. Two years later, in the hard copy of Volume 5(4) there was an illustration showing an easy way to skin and clean eel. Because there are less than a handful of either issue in hard copy, we can photocopy the illustrations of how to do that and include the Chinese character for eel and the rest of the issue if someone forks over ten dollars each, postpaid. There are also two illustrations in this issue; and copies are available. These eel-skinning illustrations are one of the most frequently requested items, second only to the issue detailing unusual meats.

We watched eel-cleaning experts in Shanghai. They skin and gut an eel in less than a minute. We can do neither. The pro’s in Shanghai use the cleaver to gut the eel, we prefer a chopstick. We offer no suggestions for skinning, other than using the cleaver and a board with a nail sticking out to spear the eel. Should you have an easier method, please share it.

High in nutrients and considered a healthy food, each three ounce portion of eel has sixteen grams of protein and only two grams of saturated fat. It has many mono- and unsaturated fatty acids and three thousand International Units of vitamin A. Eel is a good source of potassium and phosphorus, and it is low in cholesterol and calories.

Fresh water eel is adored in Shanghai. It is fun to see them by the hundreds in buckets as they swim and get sold in many marketplaces. They are also loved in the rest of China, particularly where canals and waterways are plentiful. It seems that all in Southeast Asia love eels cooked in many different ways. In Japan, they are devoured grilled, In Taiwan stir-fried as a speciality dish. Some folk call Taiwan the 'Kingdom of Eels.’ At least since the 1970's, they farm mega-amounts of these night feeders who gorge themselves on shrimp and other large sea creatures. In China and other countries, the common protocol these days is to catch them as fingerlings and transport them in baskets, then raise them in fresh-water ponds.

During the Tang Dynasty (618 - 907 CE), hearty eel broths were more popular than preparing them any other way. Nowadays, there are dozens of different preparations that vie for their spot in a popularity poll. For example, in Guangzhou in winter, Eel Casserole made with eel, garlic, black beans, ginger, rice wine, and scallions is a favorite. It is frequently cooked in a pork bone and shrimp shell stock, redolent of garlic. There and elsewhere in the south of China, on special occasions, Stuffed Duck is prepared with taro, ham, mushrooms, ginger, scallions, and eel. In summer it is loved in the same region in rice wine and chicken broth.

In Fujian, Eel with Fermented Red Wine Lees is a favorite. In Taiwan, Eel with Tree Seeds in Casserole are cooked together. Everywhere, they love eel with leek. When in Shanghai and in Shenzhen, we had wonderful dishes made with eel and medlar and other herbs, and an eel dish made with shrimp fried-rice-style. A favorite has always been fried eel made with thin strips of eel served in hot oil, hot in temperature and taste. Another favorite there and here is wrapped eel steamed packaged in a lotus leaf.

The family of a dear Shanghai friend stocks up on eel, freezing it when not in season. Knowing that we adore it, they save some for us in their four cubic foot freezer. Once they served us several eel dishes at the same meal, all were heavenly. We had Eel with Leeks, Eel in Casserole, Eel with Sausage, and an Eel-stuffed Duck. What a meal!

The closest to their rendition with leeks that we know and had outside of Shanghai can be had at Joe’s Shanghai in Flushing. With Americans in a ‘sue-em’ mode, they rarely serve it hot enough thermally. When there, you do need to gorge on it as soon as it is set at your table because this dish cools very fast and as it cools, it loses its great taste. You can send it back, as we once did, to get it reheated; that was an evening we had a slow eater at our table. In other cities, when we are at a Shanghai restaurant, we do order it even when it is not listed on the menu. So far we’ve been lucky in San Francisco and Industry City, both in California.

The following eel dishes are sweetest and best, actually terrific, when made with fresh-water eel. Should only salt water varieties be available, we suggest a teaspoon of Chinese brown sugar mixed well in a cup of cold water. Soak the eel pieces for half an hour, then rinse them before cooking. This technique also works well with frozen eel. We thank our friends in Shanghai for this cooking tip. And now to the recipes which, we might add, work well with any firm-fleshed fish.

Ever since writing about ease of skinning an eel using a board with nail protruding, there have been many requests for one or another recipe for eel. Readers spoke of never trying after their first failure at this task, and thanks to that item, their success. In their letter of thanks, many mentioned disappointment at how few ways Chinese cookbooks give for eel. We hope those that follow will delight them and everyone.
Eel and Red Sauce
Ingredients:
2 pounds river eel, skinned and gutted
1 square red fermented bean curd, mashed with one teaspoon of juice from the jar it came in (or two tablespoons red fermented wine lees)
1 Tablespoon sugar
1/4 cup corn oil
dash of ground white pepper
1 teaspoon fresh ginger, minced
2 cloves garlic, minced 1 teaspoon sesame oil
1 scallion, minced
Preparation:
1. Cut eel lengthwise into four to six strips then crosswise into two- to three-inch pieces. Then dry them on paper towels.
2, Mix mashed red bean curd with the sugar and set aside.
3. Heat oil until it is ready to smoke and add the eel pieces carefully, they spatter.
4. After two minutes, add the mashed mixture, the pepper, ginger, garlic, and the sesame oil and stir once or twice, then place this in a deep bowl, oil and all. Scatter scallion pieces on the top and serve.
Eel with Chinese Leeks
Ingredients:
1 Tablespoon corn oil
2 Tablespoons minced garlic
1 scallion, white part only, minced
2 Tablespoon minced fresh ginger
1/4 teaspoon ground white pepper
1 teaspoon sugar
1 pound fresh water eel, cut each one lengthwise into four to six strips then crosswise into two to three inch pieces, and dry them on paper towels
1 Tablespoon thin soy sauce
1 teaspoon Chinese rice wine
2 cups of Chinese leek, cut thin and into two inch pieces
1 teaspoon sesame oil
Preparation:
1. Heat wok then add oil and fry garlic, scallion, and ginger for half a minute.
2. Add pepper, sugar, thin soy sauce, and rice wine, and stir once or twice before adding the eel. Stir-fry for one minute.
3. Add leek and continue stir-frying for another minute or two before adding the sesame oil. Then serve.
Wrapped Eel
Ingredients:
1 large dry lotus leaf, soaked for half an hour in warm water
1 sweet potato, peeled and cut into thin slices
1/2 pound eel, skinned and gutted and cut in half the long way, then cut each half into three- to four-inch pieces
2 Tablespoons sweet potato or arrowroot flour
1/2 teaspoon five-spice powder
1 Tablespoon minced fresh ginger
1 scallion, minced
1 Tablespoon thin soy sauce
1 teaspoon sesame oil
Preparation:
1. Drain lotus leaf and set it into a steamer basket about ten inches wide. Put sweet potato slices over the part in the steamer basket.
2. Dry eel pieces. Mix flour and five-spice powder and coat the eel pieces with the flour, then put them in a single layer on top of the sweet potato slices. Sprinkle the ginger and scallion and then the soy sauce and the sesame oil on the eel. Then close the lotus leaf, keeping the seam side up, Steam this for twelve minutes, Set lotus leaf package in a western-style soup bowl and serve, opening it when all are seated at the table.
Eel with Red Wine Lees Sauce
Ingredients:
1 pound eel, skinned, gutted, and boned
3 Tablespoons red wine lees
3 Tablespoons dark soy sauce
2 Tablespoons rice wine
1 teaspoon sesame oil
1/4 teaspoon ground white pepper
1/4 teaspoon garlic powder
2 eggs, separated
1/2 cup water chestnut or sweet potato flour
1 cup corn oil
Preparation:
1. Cut eel in half, then into six inch lengths.
2. Make marinade of wine lees, soy sauce, rice wine, sesame oil, ground pepper, and garlic powder, and egg yolks and mix well. Marinate the eel pieces in this mixture for half an hour.
3. Beat egg white until stiff and then beat in the flour making an egg-white batter.
4. Heat oil and then dip six to eight pieces, one by one, into the batter and drop each one carefully into the hot oil. When a light brown, set on paper towels to drain. Repeat until all the eel pieces are battered and fried, and drained. Set on platter and serve with a dipping sauce of your choice or a salt-pepper mix.
Eel with Hoisin Sauce
Ingredients:
1 pound eel
3 Tablespoons hoisin sauce
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon ground white pepper
1 Tablespoon dark or mushroom soy sauce
1 Tablespoon minced fresh ginger
1/2 teaspoon sesame oil
1/2 teaspoon chili oil
1/2 cup instant potato flakes
1/2 cup corn oil
Preparation:
1. Skin eel and filet the eel, cut each side into two-inch pieces and pat them dry with paper towels.
2. Mix hoisin sauce, salt, pepper, spy sauce, ginger, sesame and chili oils,. Add the eel and stir until well-coated. Allow this to marinate in the refrigerator, covered, for two to three hours.
3. Remove from the refrigerator and allow to sit at room temperature for one hour. Then take each piece of eel out of the marinade with a fork, let the excess marinade drip off and then roll that piece in the potato flakes and put it on a dry plate. Complete until all are done.
4. Heat oil and add eel pieces and stir-fry them for five minutes, turning them gently at first. Then remove from the oil and drain on paper towels before serving.
Wine and Honey-flavored Eel
Ingredients:
1 pound eel, skinned and gutted
2 cups Chinese rice wine
2 Tablespoons honey
1 garlic clove, sliced
˝ teaspoon white pepper
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 Tablespoon wolfberries
Preparation:
1. Cut eel halves six pieces crossways and blanch them for half minute then when well-drained, put them into a bowl.
2. Mix eel with the honey, garlic, pepper, and salt and let marinate for half an hour.
3. Put into a heat-proof casserole (or a pot), sprinkle the wolfberries on top. Then cover and simmer for fifteen minutes, then serve.
Stewed Eel, Mushrooms, and Pork
Ingredients:
1 pound eel, skinned, boned, and gutted
6 dry shiitake mushrooms, soaked for half hour, stems removed and quartered
1/4 pound fresh bacon, cut into quarter-inch pieces
1 cup corn oil
6 cloves garlic
4 Tablespoons soaked tangerine pee, slivered
4 scallions, cut into one-inch pieces
2 slices fresh ginger, slivered
3 cups chicken broth
1/4 teaspoon ground white pepper
˝ teaspoon salt
2 Tablespoons dark soy sauce
2 Tablespoons Chinese rice wine
2 Tablespoons cornstarch mixed with two tablespoons cold water
2 Tablespoons sesame oil
Preparation:
1. Mix eel, mushrooms, and bacon and blanch them in boiling water for one minute, draining them well. Then blanch again for another minute but this time in preheated corn oil. Drain well, and set oil aside, most for another use.
2. Take one teaspoon of the oil and fry garlic, tangerine peel, scallions, and ginger for half a minute then add broth, pepper and salt, soy sauce, and wine and bring to the boil. Add eel and reduce heat and simmer for twenty minutes. 3. Increase heat and add cornstarch mixture and boil until the sauce clears. Put this mixture into a preheated casserole, top with pre-heated sesame oil, and serve.

                                                                                                                                                       
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