I hope many of you readers out there are coping with the heat waves this summer. To survive the notoriously hot and humid summers, Japanese people have created several strategies throughout history. Many of you probably know that eel (unagi) is a delicacy in Japan. It's a tradition to delve into this tasty tantalizer on the midsummer day of the Ox, which falls on July 23rd, and on August 4th this year. But I bet few of you know that this season, the end of summer, is also a great time to enjoy unagi meals to help keep you healthy and cool. In this month's issue, I'll tell you more about this Japanese traditional powerhouse, unagi.
As I mentioned, it's customary to eat unagi , especially grilled ones, on specific dates, which we call "doyou-no ushi-no hi". Some of my non-Japanese friends are confused by this. They ask me "Why do Japanese eat eel on Beef Saturdays -" They mistakenly think that "doyou" means "Saturday", and that "Ushi" means "beef".
In fact, in this case "doyou" means "the end of the season". Each season has its own "doyou". It usually lasts 18-days, but the summer one is especially important in Japan. We send summer greeting cards, "syochu mimai" during the summer doyou. According to the old calendar, the period is at the end of summer, but actually it's in the middle of summer. This is why we call doyou the "Midsummer Day" in English.
During the 18-days, each doyou has one or two "ushi-no hi", which is the day of the ox. It's named after one of the twelve animals of the Chinese zodiac. We have two "ushi-no hi" in the doyou period, and we call those days "doyou-no ushi-no hi", which translates to "the midsummer day of the ox" in English.
Now hopefully you understand that the meaning of Eel Day is not "beef Saturday". But you may be asking yourself, why have Japanese chosen to have eel on those dates- There are several stories to explain this phenomenon.
The most famous one is based on the following tale. During the Edo Period, an eel restaurant owner was struggling to balance his books as sales were down and customers were few and far between. He visited Gennai Hiraga, a famous scholar, to seek his advice. Gennai had a great idea. He advised the owner to put an ad out on the "doyou-no ushi-no hi", because people at that time for some reason believed they should eat dishes that had the letter "u" in order to survive the summer heat. As a result, the restaurant got a boost in business, and people started to enjoy grilled eel on the day.
Another famous story is based on another event during the Edo Period. An eel restaurant owner received a rush of orders one summer. He kept on broiling eels for three days, including the Rat, Ox and the Tiger Day, and preserved them until the day he needed them. After a few days, he discovered that the eel broiled on Ox Day was fine, but the ones broiled on the other two days tasted bad. The owner started to believe that the midsummer Ox Day is somehow good for broiling eel.
Nutritionally speaking, unagi contains vitamins A, B1, B2, D and E, which are effective agents for rejuvenating the body in summer. Among them, vitamin B1 is especially easy to loose in sweat, several minerals and high quality protein, as well as unsaturated fatty acids like DHA and EPA are more abundant in unagi than in other seafood. The benefits of these unsaturated fatty acids have been vigorously researched and well documented. The following is a summary of the major health benefits of DHA and EPA: - Decreases cholesterol - Lowers blood pressure - Prevents vascular diseases - Reduces the risk of developing arthritis - Promotes normal brain development and nervous system function - Promotes good eyesight See- Now hopefully you understand why having unagi at the end of the summer is good for you.
The most common Unagi dish is "unagi no kaba-yaki", grilled eel. Skewered unagi is grilled with sweet basting sauce. It's difficult to make it in your kitchen, so most people buy it in stores. Commonly, grilled eel is served over steamed rice. Unagi doesn't contain vitamin C, so don't forget your green salad on the side. Unfortunately, this year, the price of eel is the highest it's been in five years. You may be shocked at the price tag even at a regular grocery store, but the health benefits are well worth the cost. Don't be a scrooge and get the stamina you need to recover from the unrelenting heat from your new friend, unagi.
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