Despite what you may have heard (perhaps on a little known TV show called Friends), unagi has nothing to do with karate. But what does unagi actually mean—and is it even real?
What Is Unagi?
Unagi is actually a freshwater eel and a common ingredient in Japanese cooking. More specifically, it refers to a Japanese freshwater eel called Anguilla japonica. Unagi, which has a bold taste, is packed with nutrients like protein and calcium.
Unagi is often prepared using a Japanese seafood preparation method called kabayaki, where the fish or eel is split down the back, gutted, boned, butterflied, cut into squares, skewered, then dipped in soy sauce before being broiled or grilled.
It can also be served over a bed of rice (unagidon) or used as a sushi ingredient (unakyu). The dish is never served raw, as uncooked eel is poisonous.
It's a tradition to eat unagi each year on the Day of the Ox. The practice is said to promote stamina and vitality in the coming year.
Unagi and Sustainability
Unagi is extremely popular in Japan—there are even specialty restaurants dedicated to the eel. It’s so popular, in fact, that the species is on the country’s "red list" of endangered species after finding a 70 to 90 percent rate of decline over the last three generations, according to a 2013 article from Esquire.
Because of this and issues with farm raising, Seafood Watch, a sustainable seafood database, has recommended that consumers avoid the product altogether.
If you absolutely must have eel on your next trip to Japan, there is another option: Unagi’s saltwater counterpart, anago, is perhaps a more sustainable choice.