When I was a teen. I had a Japanese penpal. One summer, she came to visit me from Yokohama. I lived in a rural area in Pennsylvania, but for one brief day, we took my friend to New York to “see the city”. For some reason or other, perhaps as a concession to possible homesickness, we all went for lunch at a Japanese restaurant. It was that day, at my penpal’s urging, that I tried eel (unagi in Japanese).
It was … interesting.
Luckily, my skepticism towards eel wore off in the following years and it came to be one of my favorite foods. Which is why I look forward to the Day of the Ox every July, or as I like to call it, “stuff yourself silly with eel” day.
Never heard of it? It’s not exactly an official holiday on the calendar. But pay close attention and you may start to notice restaurants, fish mongers and supermarkets in Japan all sporting posters encouraging you to buy eel to consume on a specific day. That day this year is July 27th, known by the old lunar calendar as the Day of the Ox, or Ushi no Hi.
So what’s makes this the day to eat eel? As the story goes, an enterprising eel seller in the 18th century hit upon an ingeniuous marketing plan. The Day of the Ox is allegedly one of the hottest days of summer – to survive the rising mercury, he convinced citizens of Edo (the former name of Tokyo) to eat his eel to keep cool.
His rationale is a bit complicated for us to follow, but back in those days, both calendar days AND months were known by animal signs. There are a fair number of “ushi no hi”, for instance, throughout the year, but only one month (December). Since December was cold, the idea was that eating foods that began with the same sound as “ushi” would cool people off. Unagi (eel), ume (plums) and udon (noodles) are still popular summer food choices today.
Along with the temperatures, the cost of eel is soaring this summer. But you can still find some affordable options if you’re willing to look, or settle for eels that were farmed further afield. Try a bowl of unadon, eel served over rice, usually accompanied by a side of miso soup and pickles. Or bake your own. Local groceries stores in Japan sell single or family-size portions of the aqautic delicacy. Broil it up for a dinnertime treat!