All recipes are for 2 servings unless noted. Oil is canola oil and salt is kosher salt.


Dinner, July 21, 2011

It's doyo no ushi no hi today -- the "ox day" during the 18-day doyo period before summer equinox day on the lunar calender. These complicated things are usually announced by someone every year so that people know which day doyo no ushi no hi is that year. Why does it matter? Because we eat unagi eel on that day.

Unaju (grilled eel on steamed rice) comes to my mind as the first-choice food on doyo no ushi no hi. One summer in my junior high school days I visited my uncle in in Chiba and he took me to a famous eel restaurant in Narita. My uncle and I sat across from one another at one of the large rectangular tables in a huge tatami mat space. We each had unaju along with  miso soup, some pickles and tea. We barely knew each other and didn't know what to talk about. We had a very quiet lunch. The unaju was amazing. Grilled unagi slices were neatly arranged on top of steamed rice. The rich, aromatic sauce for unagi went into the top layer of rice. When I put a piece of unagi and rice together in my mouth, it tasted divine. In the middle of muggy summer, we ate unagi while wiping off the sweat on our foreheads. There was no such a thing as an air conditioner at that restaurant.

Despite such strong association with summer as a nutritious food choice, eating unagi on this particular day is basically a 200-year-old marketing scheme. The most-likely origin goes like this: an unagi merchant consulted with the scholar of a Dutch study on how to improve his lackluster business in summer, and the scholar suggested promoting eel as a nutritious food to prevent heat-related disorders. Eel is indeed rich in Vitamins A and B, and helps to increase appetite. However, its actual season is late fall to early spring in Japan, when the nutritional value is at its highest. What's funny is that people, including myself, still make some effort to eat unagi on doyo no ushi no hi.

Unagi found at grocery stores here is very fatty. As a rule of thumb, the most expensive one is the leanest. Even then, it is fatty. What can you do?

Because it is so rich, the flavor still comes through even if other ingredients are added. Instead of unaju, I make donburi rice bowl with grilled unagi cooked in broth with gobo burdock root, mushroom (eringi king oyster mushroom for this dinner) and egg. Sansho leaves as a garnish add a pungent aroma with a hint of citrus.

For miso soup, daikon radish that is gentle on the stomach is added along with carrot for vitamins and satoimo baby taro root for getting rid of extra sodium. Crispy mizuna adds a fresh green taste to the soup.

Fava beans are still in season this year. They add a taste of early summer to the meal.

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