All About Eel, Elver, Lamprey and Unagi: Which to Choose and How to Cook and Eat Them
In this post:
- introduction – how I discovered smoked eel
- smoked eel – ideas for what to do with it
- elvers – what are they, how to cook them
- unagi – what are they, how to cook them
- lampreys – what they are, how to cook them
- restaurant where you can eat smoked eel
“I could not bring myself to be an ally of yours for neither our customs nor our customs agree…. you hold the eel to be a mighty divinity: we hold it to by far to be the mightiest of dainties”Anaxandrides, writing a comedy in the fourth century, Island Towns
Introduction – how I discovered smoked eel
On our way to the ferry to Sardinia we stopped for lunch on the edge of a beautiful tranquil lake. Many householders on the waterside had gone unrestrainedly to town, their balconies and doorways a riot of scarlet geraniums mixed together with a host of other, local, colourful flowers.
We found a restaurant with a view and settled into our chairs. Then I noticed that the name of this lovely, sleepy town was Anguillara, and that there was anguilla (eel in Italian) on the menu, and what’s more it was smoked eel – just how I like it. So naturally I assumed that eel was the thing to have there. However, later research revealed that the town was named Anguillara because a villa there belonging to a rich family supplying ancient Rome with fresh lake fish had an angular shape. If I’d known that I might never have tried the delicious eels!
Buying smoked eel – the sustainability issue:
Many of the narrow water courses and water meadows where eels used to proliferate are being reclaimed these days and wild eel are becoming rarer. To read about how to buy sustainable eel and what’s causing the problem see the full story here.
However, in quite a few of the dishes below you could substitute smoked mackerel or kippers.
You want to buy it boned and smoked, then you can use it straight away without cooking it.
“A plateful of smoked eel, accompanied by a mountain of pungent horseradish, is as much a taste sensation as a green papaya salad or Goan vindaloo”Tom Parker Bowles, E is for Eating: An Alphabet of Greed
- Simple, as Tom Parker Bowles suggests, just with horseradish (I prefer creamed horseradish)
- Smoked eels are delicious in salads and pâtés. Angela Dimayuga, executive chef of Mission Chinese Food in New York, makes a mixed herb salad which she dresses with fresh lemon juice and a spoonful of tinned baby eel with its oil
- serve smoked eel plain with horseradish sauce
- Slice them up roughly, add to fried shallots, a dash of cream, then add beaten eggs to brilliant scrambled eggs
- With a beetroot remoulade sauce
- Smoked eel croquetas with horseradish and beetroot puree at Salt Yard
- The London restaurant Salt Yard combines the beetroot and horseradish together with the smoked eel in a tapa of smoked eel, horseradish and beetroot purée – delicious!
- With eggs Benedict, spinach and a mustard sauce
- With bacon in sourdough sandwiches
- In a baked potato with crème fraiche and spring onions
- In The Netherlands they spread toast with chive butter and top with smoked eel
- In an avocado salad, for example, a no-lettuce avocado and lime salad.
- Smoked eel is also popular in Cuba – with bacon, scallops with celeriac purée and an apple and mustard salsa according to Judy Bastyra and Andy Rose in Eat Cuban
- When I was in The Netherlands recently, in Willemstad, the excellent restaurant, De Rosmolun served smoked eel in mayonnaise with a blackcurrant chutney…. very good.
- At the two-Michelin starred Ledbury restaurant in Notting Hill the chef, Brett Graham, bought three tons of oversized white beetroot which had bolted – his supplier was going to plough them back in. Graham immaginatively baked them in clay, sliced them thin and served them as a bed for vanilla cream, smoked eel and eel oil.
- At The Boat House, possibly Northern Ireland’s best restaurant, the smoked eel is served with potato farls (a sort of griddle bread – substitute for fried mashed potato) and borage flowers.
- At The Typing Room in Bethnal Green smoked eel was served as part of a chicken, radish and bread comsommé
- Frank Hederman, who makes some of the finest smoked eel, suggests a salad of sliced winter oranges and blanched fennel
- or fried green bacon with a spinach salad
- or with mashed celeriac
- James Martin suggests serving it with clams, new potatoes, spinach and a lemon and butter sauce
- Picasso told his wife Jacqueline, “eels are good enough to paint” – and indeed he produced a painting which he dedicated to her. For their recipe go to Vogue.
- The Booke of Goode Cookry Very Necessary for all Such as Delight Therein, written in 1584, suggests taking out the backbone, stuffing them with ‘onions, percely, Time, and Rosemary chopped together, and put thereto pepper and salt, and a little Saffron’ and then roasting the eel.
- The New Booke of Cookerie, written in 1615, suggests baking the eels in a pie. “Cut your Eeles about the length of your finger: season with pepper, salt and ginger”, then put them in a pastry case with unsalted butter, and then add “great Razins of the Sunne, and an Onyon minst small, and so close it and bake it”
- Chef Mark Broadbent serves smoked eel as a starter with a beetroot remoulade sauce (see link below for recipe).
- Tom Kerridge on the other hand likes his with eggs Benedict with spinach and a mustard sauce; in sandwiches; and with baked potato.
- Food writer Rachel Walker eats hers with noodles, or in a salad with avocado.
- At the Black Swan in Yorkshire they serve it with Lincolnshire Poacher cheese
- Stephen Harris makes a soup with potato, milk, onion and parsley purée – essentially a hot vichyssoise, garnished with a dribble of truffle oil, and pieces of room temperature smoked eel
- Rosie Sykes, in The Sunday Night Book, suggests serving smoked eel with a coddled egg Ivanhoe – that is with a duck egg coddled with cream, horseradish, parsley and butter..
- Nicholas Lander, writing in the FT Magazine, reports that “beetroot and cranberry, not obvious bedfellows, made for a glorious pink-and-purple topping to my smoked eel starter. Together with the acidity of apple and the crunch of hazelnut, this was a stunning dish”. He was dining at the appropriately named Restaurant Eels in Paris..
- Recently at the Anglo-German club in Hamburg, I had smoked eel with scrambled eggs and pumpernickel bread. Excellent.
- Honey & Co serve theirs on a bed of celeriac rösti together with fried egg or two.
- The ancient Greeks served eels with oysters and roasted grasshoppers.
- Anthony Demetre serves pink peppercorn and honey on smoked eel – he says it goes particularly well with the smokiness and fattiness of the eel.
- Jeremy Lee, chef-patron of Quo Vadis, includes a smoked eel sandwich ‘esconced on on his menu for all time’ which he says is ‘something of a must’. The smoked eel is served between slices of sourdough, with some fiery horseradish cream, mustard and some pickled red onions. Jemma Paek won the A A Gill Award in 2020 with a piece about this sandwich. She wrote:
“Over the months, people would come in during the dinner rush, sit at the bar and order just a smoked eel sandwich, sometimes with beer, sometimes on its own, then pay silently and slip out into the navy Soho night. You could smell it before it arrived — the buttery saltiness of bread, the wood smoke in the eel, the sharp tang of the pickle. A treat. A thing of beauty. The smoked eel sandwich was the one thing all the staff prayed would get sent up by mistake, an erroneous order, misread by the kitchen or wrongly put through by a supervisor, so we could take it reverently into the back, slice it into bits and devour it before going back out to top up the guests’ emptying glasses.”
“Brillat-Savarin recounts a tale of a three-foot eel fed to friars by a certain Madame Brguet. The presentation of the eel was so suggestive that the conversation ‘settled on the most popular of mortal sins and remained there'”.Lana Citron, Edible Pleasures
Elvers are young eels that travel from the ocean where they are born to inland rivers and streams to mature. They are much more appreciated in countries like France, Portugal and Spain, also Japan than in the UK although many come from the West Country (the Severn river). Fry then in bacon fat and beaten eggs, or with garlic and chilli. They are in season in April and May, and in a scarce year can be almost as expensive as caviar.
Chef Nacho Manzano, at Casa Marcial, pairs the elvers with slivers of mushroom and then douses them in a shimmering broth with an egg yolk, for added silky richness.
“….Or the elvers we had in Madrid, fried in oil with garlic and half a red pepper. It had been a cold spring morning and we’d spent two hours in the Prado, gazing at the Velázquezes, hugging one another it was so good to be alive: we had cancelled our bookings on a plane that had crashed.”Bruce Chatwin, A Coup, in Granta 10: spring 1984
Unagi is freshwater eel, often used in Japanese cooking.
Heather Watson, British No 1 female tennis player, says that for her last meal she would choose Unagi – Japanese eel “the sound of it might put you off but it’s so good”.
In her wonderful book on Japanese cooking, Reiko Hashimoto suggests serving this with daikon radish, a rich terriyaki sauce and then either with foie gras or with duck livers. A second suggestion from her is to serve it on a bed of spinach, prawns and edamame beans and gilded with a kind of tofu-based savoury egg custard. Buy her book, Hashi, for both these recipes.
Lampreys are not eels, but they look a bit like them being about the same size and having no scales. Since Roman times they’ve been considered a bit of a delicacy, with Henry I of England liking them so much that he died of a surfeit of them. They are described by Nino Latini, Philip Kazan’s taste prodigy hero in Appetite as being a horrible task to prepare, but with regard to the taste he says:
“The flesh was sweet, not fishy at all, and the texture was a little like young rabbit. The tartness of verjuice fitted into the earthy richness of cinnamon like a sword into a scabbard. A dish to make the maestro smile”.
What to drink with eel:
You could try an orange wine from Slovenia or Italy. For more information on orange wine in Slovenia follow this link.
Eating eel in a restaurant:
If you want someone else to cook eel for you you can go to Ceviche Old Street in London where you will get eel served with sea bass belly, which, according to Zoe Williams in The Daily Telegraph is “punchy, rich, street-y, but suave”.
This post is dedicated to The Eel.
The Book of Eels, by Tom Fort
Below, listen to Kitty Macfarlane’s song about European eels migrating from the Sargasso Sea to the rivers of Somerset. The poetic lyrics end with the comment:
“…the irony that
While patient science adds fact to fact
Hasty man draws lines on maps.”