Samui Wining & Dining
Catch of the Day

Slippery as an eel.


2-3Eels, those slimy black things that wriggle around in tanks in most fresh markets on the island. What is it about them that causes people to wrinkle up their noses in disgust, or frown with disapproval? It’s such a popular dish in Asia and is enjoyed in a huge variety of ways. One Korean website described it as follows: “Slowly grilled, the flesh has a marbled quality like a fine rib eye steak, a silky texture that resembles lobster.” So why do we go crazy for rib-eye steaks but not eel. Perhaps it’s their looks - they closely resemble snakes which have received so much negative press since the dawn of time, with stories about men, women and apples.

      The eels mentioned earlier in the fresh markets are Asian swamp eels, which aren’t actually true eels due to the lack of scales, dorsal, anal and caudal fins. This species is native to tropical areas of northern Indian, Burma, China, Russia, Japan and Malaysia, and they are a prominent source of protein in the north-eastern part of Thailand

      But let’s face it, eels aren’t attractive. Their slimy, skinny bodies and beady eyes perhaps work against them. They range in length from about 5cm to 4m, and can weigh anything from 30g up to a massive 25kg. They have no pelvic fin, and most also don’t have a dorsal fin. Instead, they have a

ribbon-like fin which runs along the upper length of the body. They mostly live in shallow water, and often burrow into sand or mud or live in amongst the rocks. The reason they’re not seen that often is because they’re mostly nocturnal, and some species prefer deeper waters (as deep as 4,000m).

But even if they don’t look particularly appetising, eels are indeed edible. Freshwater and marine eels are commonly used in Japanese cuisine in dishess such as unadon. This literally means ‘eel bowl’ and consists of a large bowl filled with steamed white rice and topped with grilled fillets of eel (similar to teriyaki). Another dish in Japan is kabayaki. The eel is split, gutted, boned, butterflied, cut into squares, skewered and dipped in a sweet soy-based sauce then grilled. Eel is so popular in Japan they consume more than 70 percent of the global catch.

      Eels are also popular in Chinese and Korean cuisine. In Korean cuisine, there is a dish called jangeo. The eel is broiled and then laid in a dish like a fancy game of dominos, each piece perfectly cut, glazed and sprinkled with sesame seeds, soy sauce, and sugar. Koreans believe this dish helps to increase stamina, and that eating it avoids heat exhaustion.

     If you’re from England, you’re probably familiar with jellied eels. They originated in 18th century, in London’s East End. Chopped eels are boiled in a spiced stock then left to cool and set, forming a jelly. It is then eaten cold. The popularity of this dish has declined since World War Two.

      In northern Germany, the Czech Republic, Netherlands, Poland, Sweden and Denmark, smoked eel is considered a delicacy.

       In Italy, eel is one of the ingredients in their fish-based Christmas Eve dinner. The main ingredient of ‘Anguilla al Pomodoro’, is basically eel (heads thankfully removed), as well as lots of tomatoes, and dry white wine. It is stewed and then served on toast. Doesn’t sound too awful, does it?

      Nutritionally eel is not too bad. It’s high in protein, surprisingly low in saturated fat and high in monounsaturated fat (which is a healthier fat than saturated fat). Although it has a good dose of Vitamin A, it is somewhat lacking in other vitamins. Eel blood is toxic to both humans and other mammals but cooking destroys the poison. The poison helped Charles Richet win a Nobel Prize for discovering anaphylaxis. He did this by extracting the poison and injecting it into a dog and observing the effect. Great for mankind, not so great for the dog.

      Eel stews well, and the taste and texture goes exceptionally well with onion, wine and tomatoes, as the Italians have already discovered. It is also delicious smoked, served with brown bread and lemon juice.

      So don’t be afraid, just like you don’t think of a cute little lamb when you tuck into lamb chops or lamb shank, just don’t think of a slimy, wriggling eel and just maybe you’ll be able to concentrate on the taste and be pleasantly surprised.


Colleen Setchell


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