BARBECUED EEL
Katsumi Kasahara  /  AP
Chef Shigeo Ono places eel meat on a barbecue pit at a restaurant in Tokyo.
updated 7/27/2004 10:46:43 AM ET 2004-07-27T14:46:43

It’s another hot summer in Tokyo. The sun burns like a furnace in the sky and Tokyoites trudge down city sidewalks, sopping the sweat off their foreheads with handkerchiefs.

All that discomfort gives Katsunori Tanaka a hunger for one thing: a big bowl of grilled eel over rice.

“I need stamina and I think eating eel makes me feel better,” said Tanaka, a 35-year-old salesman, after wolfing down a serving with his colleagues near Tokyo’s biggest fish market.

The uninitiated might consider the slithery creatures — anguilla japonica, or “unagi” in Japanese — an unappetizing meal. But the Japanese for centuries have considered eel a surefire cure for heat fatigue.

And with the mercury hitting record levels in Tokyo this summer, the eels — filleted, grilled and slathered in a sugar, soy and rice wine sauce — are flying out of the kitchens.

Sales up 30 percent
Takao Inoue, the manager at Haibara, a popular eel take-out shop near the Tsukiji fish market, can attest to that. He grilled a mind-numbing 400 eels on Friday, and estimates he’s sold 30 percent more this summer over last year.

“When the weather is hot, sales go up,” he said after a long, hot day at work.

This summer in Japan fits the bill. Last Tuesday, the temperature in central Tokyo hit a record high of 103.1 — the hottest day on record in the capital since the Meteorological Agency began keeping statistics in 1923.

It was slightly cooler Friday, at 92 at midday in Tokyo.

Sales are up nationwide. Naoko Ueda, spokeswoman for one of Japan’s largest supermarket chains, Aeon, said sales during the traditional weeklong peak were 30 percent higher this year than last, which was unseasonably cool.

The freshwater fish, which grows about 20 inches in length, is rich in vitamin A, B1, B2, D and E. Its high protein content is also good for the bodies weary in hot, humid weather.

18th century marketing
The eel’s popularity in Japan goes way back. “Manyoshu,” a collection of poetry believed to have been published during the 8th century, includes a poem praising the eel as a way of preventing weight loss in summer.

Unagi got a major boost with a nifty 18th century marketing ploy.

Eel legend says that well-known Japanese naturalist Gennai Hiraga told an eel dealer he could boost sales by putting up a sign urging customers to eat the creatures on “Doyo no Ushi Day” — a traditional summer benchmark denoting 18 days before the beginning of autumn under Japan’s ancient calendar. This year there were two: Wednesday, July 21, and Aug. 2.

“It was not that Hiraga had any scientific proof that eel was good,” said Junji Natsume of the fish farmers co-op in Lake Hamana, a major eel-producing area in central Japan.

“It had been commonly thought that eel was nutritious and good for those who suffered summer heat. So once the sign was put up, people bought it,” he said.

Chinese, Taiwanese eel
These days, most of the eel going down Japanese gullets comes from abroad. Japanese production plummeted by 50 percent since 1991 to 24,569 tons in 2003 in the face of cheaper imports. Some 80 percent of the eel consumed in Japan is imported, mostly from China and Taiwan.

At the retail level, however, that doesn’t matter much. For a seller like Inoue, all he’s counting on is the weather — nice, hot, sweaty, eel-eatin’ weather.

“I hope it doesn’t rain,” he said.

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