Eel

Eel

By
From
Finding Fire
Serves
4

I have always been fascinated with eel, and not only from an eating perspective. While all ingredients have a story to tell, the story of eel is epic, with a 20-year life cycle that begins in the Sargasso Sea. What follows makes the eel the most mysterious fish in the world. Every year the larvae travel from their spawning grounds in the Sargasso Sea to Europe, a 6000 kilometre (3728 mile) journey along the Gulf Stream, which can take up to three years. They arrive in Europe in the winter – where they are known as ‘glass eels’ due to their transparent bodies – swimming upstream to begin their adult development. Ten years later, the eels return to the Sargasso Sea to spawn and die, thus starting the cycle again.

In the Basque country, glass eels are known as angulas and are worth their weight in gold, with each fish costing approximately one euro. While this doesn’t seem much to pay for a whole fish, each juvenile specimen only weighs a gram, so a small bowl would typically set you back 100 euros … needless to say it is the best seafood spaghetti you will eat in your life.

At Etxebarri, the start of the eel season was always awaited with eager anticipation. Traditionally they would be double cooked: blanched to remove the mucous membrane and then fried with chilli and garlic. While delicious, angulas often lose their unique texture and flavour in the process. Stored live they can survive in both fresh and salt water, but we found they survived best under a man-made waterfall with spring water channelled from the local mountain. We then killed them with a tobacco infusion (water infused with tobacco leaves), which saw them expel their mucous membrane, before washing them in spring water. They were then grilled directly in a basket over the embers. When it came to angulas, time stood still; they were so delicate and revered that everyone stopped whatever they were doing for the brief 45 seconds it took to cook them.

Such reverence for the eel is only matched by the Japanese. With their predilection for mastering just one skill, they have entire restaurants dedicated solely to preparing eel, and consume both saltwater (anagi) and freshwater (unagi) eel. The Japanese, however, import the baby eels and fatten them as if they're the wagyu of the sea until they are plump for the grill. They receive precise execution (ike-jime, page 246), as do all their fish. This is followed by unparalleled knife skills: the fish is split down the back, gutted and boned, butterflied and cut into square fillets. The eel then undergoes an extensive preparation involving skewering, steaming to remove excess fat, lacquering with a sweet soy sauce–based glaze and then grilling, more lacquering and more grilling. Known as kabayaki, the resulting fish is crisp on the outside and soft, fatty and tender on the inside.

The following preparation of eel pays a respectful nod to both cultures and is in accordance with how I like the majority of my seafood – killed, grilled and served immediately. While sansho pepper is a traditional Japanese seasoning for eel, the vibrant colour and tangy flavour of Australian native tamarind balances the fatty eel.

Ingredients

Quantity Ingredient
1 live eel (freshwater or saltwater)
100g fresh or frozen australian native tamarind, peeled (see note)
70g sugar
sea salt
2 pinches finely ground sansho pepper

Method

  1. 1. Prepare your embers and arrange a grill approximately 5 cm (2 in) above the embers.
  2. 2. Prepare the live eel. Place the eel in ice water for 20 minutes to slow down the heart rate. Carefully remove and, holding it firmly behind the head, place on a wooden board. Locate the point just behind the eye of the fish and firmly press a nail through the head, killing the fish immediately and securing the fish to the board. With a sharp knife, make an incision behind the head to sever the spine, which will allow the fish to bleed. Run the knife horizontally along the spine, opening the fish through the backbone. Butterfly open, removing the guts of the fish. Holding the knife flat, run it down the centre of the eel, keeping the blade parallel to the backbone. Remove the spine. Sever the head and tail and trim the fins. Cut the fish into quarters. Rinse quickly and dry well.
  3. 3. Prepare the tamarind. In a small saucepan, combine the tamarind and the sugar and cook over a gentle heat for 30 minutes until soft. Pass through a fine-mesh sieve into a clean container. Allow to cool to room temperature and reserve.
  4. 4. Thread the bamboo or metal skewers across the eel – this should keep it flat while cooking. Season the flesh of the eel with salt and sansho pepper. Grill, skin side down, over intense-medium embers for 3–5 minutes until caramelised. The fat should render from the skin, and the skin should become crisp.
  5. 5. Raise the grill to 20 cm (8 in) above medium-gentle embers, turn the eel and grill for a further 3 minutes. Season the skin side with salt. When cooked, the flesh of the eel will turn slightly opaque. Transfer to a clean tray and allow to rest in a warm place for 3 minutes.
  6. 6. Cut each fillet into 2 pieces and serve immediately with the native tamarind purée.

NOTE

  • Gooseberries or tomatillos are a good alternative if Australian native tamarind is unavailable. Simply grill them until soft, then cook down with 20 g (¾ oz) of sugar.
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