Eels as Food: From Their History to Sustainability

by Joost Nusselder | Last Updated:  May 30, 2022

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An eel is any fish belonging to the order Anguilliformes (), which consists of four suborders, 20 families, 111 genera and about 800 species. Most eels are predators. The term “eel” (originally referring to the European eel) is also used for some other similarly shaped fish, such as electric eels and spiny eels, but these are not members of the Anguilliformes order.

Despite their unusual appearance, they are considered a delicacy in many parts of the world, particularly in Japan and China. These countries have developed various ways of preparing eels, such as the popular dish Unadon, where grilled eel is served over rice. Another dish, Unajuu, features eel served in a box instead of a bowl.

In this article, we will explore everything there is to know about eels as a food source.

What are eels

In this post we'll cover:

What’s the Deal with Eels?

Eels are a type of fish that have been a popular food source for centuries. They are known for their unique appearance and flavor, making them a favorite ingredient in many dishes around the world.

Types of Eels

Eels come in a variety of species, including freshwater and saltwater varieties. Some of the most commonly known species include:

  • Anguilla Japonica (Nihon Unagi)- a freshwater eel commonly used in Japanese cuisine, particularly in dishes like unadon and unajuu
  • Anago- a saltwater eel often used in sushi and other Japanese dishes
  • Conger Eel- a marine eel that is popular in Chinese cuisine and can be prepared in many different ways

Preparation and Serving

Eels are a versatile ingredient that can be prepared in many different ways. Some of the most famous dishes that include eel as an ingredient are:

  • Unadon- a Japanese dish consisting of grilled eel served over rice
  • Unajuu- a similar dish to unadon, but served in a box instead of a bowl
  • Anago Sushi- sushi made with saltwater eel

Eels can also be served in soups, stews, and as a standalone dish. They are commonly found in restaurants in Japan and China, but can also be found in other parts of the world.

Eels as Predators

Eels are not only used as food, but they are also fascinating creatures. They are known for their ability to hunt and catch prey, making them a top predator in their environment. Eels have a unique ability to generate electric shocks, which they use to stun their prey before consuming it.

Sustainability and Conservation

Due to their popularity as a food source, eels have become a concern for sustainability and conservation efforts. Some brands and restaurants have started to remove eel from their menus to help conserve the species. However, eel farming has become a common practice in many parts of the world to help meet the demand for eel as a food source.

What’s on the Menu for Eels?

Eels are primarily carnivorous and consume a diverse range of prey. Their diet includes:

  • Small fish
  • Invertebrates
  • Crustaceans
  • Shrimp
  • Crabs
  • Sea urchins
  • Insect larvae

Can You Eat Eel Meat? Let’s Find Out!

Yes, eel is edible and is considered a delicacy in many parts of the world. Eel meat is a popular ingredient in many dishes and is commonly found in Japanese and Chinese cuisine. Unlike other types of meat, eel meat contains a high amount of protein, making it a good option for those looking to build muscle.

What Forms of Eel Meat are Popular?

Eel meat can be prepared in many different ways, including grilled, marinated in soy sauce, and topped with rice. Some of the most popular forms of eel meat include:

  • Unadon and unajuu (Japanese dishes)
  • Conger eel (commonly found in Chinese cuisine)
  • Anago (a type of marine eel)

What Are the Different Types of Eel?

There are many different kinds of eel, but the two most prominent types are freshwater eels (unagi) and marine eels (anago and conger eel). These eels can be found in various sizes, reaching up to 4 feet in length and coming in different shapes and colors. Some eels have dark scales, while others have a more natural appearance.

Is Eel Meat Considered a Staple Food?

Eel meat is not typically considered a staple food, but it is a special item that is commonly found in restaurants that offer Japanese or Chinese cuisine. In fact, eel is so popular in Japan that there is a special day dedicated to its consumption called “Unagi no Hi” (Eel Day), which falls on the last Saturday of July.

Can Eel Meat Affect the Taste of Certain Dishes?

Yes, eel meat can affect the taste of certain dishes. When compared to other types of fish, eel has a strong and extraordinary taste that can change the following:

  • The overall flavor of a dish
  • The texture of a dish
  • The aroma of a dish

Is Eel Meat a Good Source of Protein?

Yes, eel meat is a good source of protein. In fact, eel meat contains more protein than other types of meat, making it a great option for those looking to build muscle. Eel meat is also low in fat, making it a healthy choice for those watching their weight.

Can You Find Eel Meat in Stock at Grocery Stores?

It depends on where you live. In some areas, eel meat is a common item that can be found in grocery stores. In other areas, eel meat may be harder to come by. If you are new to cooking with eel meat, it may be helpful to ask an expert at your local grocery store for more information.

Can You Eat Eel Meat Raw?

While some people prefer to eat eel meat raw, it is generally not recommended. Raw eel meat can contain harmful bacteria that can make you sick. If you decide to eat eel meat, it is important to cook it thoroughly to ensure that it is safe to eat.

What Are Some Specific Dishes That Use Eel Meat?

There are many different dishes that use eel meat, including:

  • Unadon and unajuu (Japanese dishes)
  • Conger eel (commonly found in Chinese cuisine)
  • Anago (a type of marine eel)
  • Eel sushi (a popular item in Japanese restaurants)
  • Eel hot pot (a common dish in Japanese cuisine)

What Are Some Helpful Notes to Keep in Mind When Cooking with Eel Meat?

When cooking with eel meat, it is important to keep the following in mind:

  • Eel meat is typically thin and can break easily, so it is important to handle it with care.
  • Eel meat is often marinated in soy sauce, which can affect the overall flavor of a dish.
  • Eel meat is commonly topped with rice, which can help to balance out the strong taste of the meat.
  • Eel meat is a great source of protein and can be a perfect addition to any diet.

The Delightful Taste of Eels

Eel is a versatile meat that can be used in a variety of dishes. Some popular eel dishes include:

  • Eel Pie: A traditional British dish that combines chopped eel meat with a stock-based mixture and is served hot.
  • Unadon: A Japanese dish that consists of grilled eel served over a bed of rice and topped with a sweet soy sauce.
  • Eel Soup: A common dish in many countries that combines eel meat with a mixture of ginger, soy sauce, and other seasonings.
  • Donburi: A Japanese dish that combines eel with a bowl of rice and other ingredients.
  • Sushi: Eel is a common ingredient in sushi rolls and is often marinated in a soy sauce mixture before being served.

Preparing Eel

Preparing eel requires some level of skill, but it is worth the effort. Here are some tips for preparing eel:

  • Fresh eel should be cleaned and gutted before being cooked.
  • Eel meat is gelatinous and can be boiled or simmered to create a tighter texture.
  • Unlike other seafood, eel should be left to cool before being grilled or cooked in other ways.
  • Eel can be marinated in a soy sauce mixture to improve its flavor.

The Health Benefits of Eel

Despite its strong taste, eel is considered a delicacy in many parts of the world and is known for its health benefits. Eel meat is high in protein and contains natural omega-3 fatty acids, which can improve heart health. However, the nutritional value of eel depends on how it is prepared and cooked.

Delicious Eel Dishes from Around the World

Eels are particularly prominent in Japanese cuisine, where they are commonly known as unagi or anago. Unagi is the Japanese word for freshwater eel, particularly the Japanese eel species Anguilla japonica (nihon unagi). Here are some popular Japanese eel dishes:

  • Unadon: Grilled eel served on a bed of rice and drizzled with a sweet soy sauce.
  • Unajuu: A similar dish to unadon, but the eel is marinated in a sauce before being grilled.
  • Kabayaki: Eel that has been filleted, deboned, skewered, and grilled with a sweet soy sauce.

Other Forms of Eel Dishes

Eels are not only used in Japanese and Chinese cuisine, but they are also popular in other parts of the world. Here are some other prominent forms of eel dishes:

  • Anago: Saltwater eel that is commonly used in Japanese cuisine. It is often served as sushi or grilled with a sweet soy sauce.
  • Unagiunagi: A type of freshwater eel that is commonly used in Japanese cuisine. It is often served as sushi or grilled with a sweet soy sauce.
  • Unadon and unajuu are two dishes that are particularly popular in Japan and are often served on special occasions.

In conclusion, eels are versatile creatures that can be prepared in many different ways. Whether you prefer freshwater or marine eels, there is a dish out there for everyone to enjoy.

The Eel’s Historical Journey as a Food Source

• Historically, eels have been known to be a suitable food source for people since the second millennium BC.

  • The earliest evidence of eel consumption was found in a mash recipe from ancient Mesopotamia.

Eels in London’s History

• Eels were a common food source for London’s poor in the past.

  • European eels were so abundant in the Thames that nets were set upriver as far as London itself.
  • Eels were sold in houses and shops in London, and they became a staple food for the city’s residents.
  • The Tower of London even had its own eel fishery, which opened in the 12th century and is one of the oldest in the world.

The Recolonisation of Eels in the Environment

• Eels have faced challenges in recent years due to changes in their environment.

  • The Environment Agency has been working to support the recolonisation of eels in the water, allowing them to survive and thrive once again.

Sustainability and Conservation: Ensuring a Future for Eels

As consumers, we have the power to make a difference in the sustainability of eel populations. Eel farming is a way to ensure that eels are raised in a sustainable and environmentally friendly way. This is important because eel populations are critically endangered, and without action, they may not be around for future generations to enjoy.

Conservation Efforts for Eel Populations

Conservation efforts are being made to save eel populations. The European Eel is considered critically endangered, and the Japanese Eel is also facing significant population declines. To help save eel populations, officials are working to identify and protect eel habitats, and students and researchers are conducting biological research to better understand eel populations and their needs.

Labels and Information Sheets for Sustainable Eel Products

Consumers can help by looking for sustainably raised eel products. Supermarkets and seafood retailers are beginning to sell sustainably raised eel, and some even have labels and information sheets to help consumers identify sustainable products. When buying eel, it’s worth taking the time to look for these labels and information sheets to ensure that you’re making a sustainable choice.

The Role of Eel Farming in Sustainability

Eel farming is a step towards sustainability. Eels are generally raised in small glass or net pens, making it a low-impact form of food production. Eel farming also requires less feed and material than other forms of fish farming, making it a more environmentally friendly option.

The Best Ways to Help Save Eel Populations

If you’re looking to help save eel populations, there are a few things you can do. Here are some of the best ways to help:

  • Buy sustainably raised eel products
  • Support conservation efforts for eel populations
  • Educate yourself and others about the importance of sustainability
  • Take action to reduce your own environmental impact

Preparing Eel: A Slippery But Rewarding Process

Preparing eel can be a daunting task, but with the right technique, it can be a delicious addition to any dish. Here’s how to prepare eel safely:

  • First, make sure you have a sharp knife and a clean workspace.
  • Remove the eel from its packaging and rinse it thoroughly under cold water.
  • Cut off the head and tail of the eel and remove the skin using a pair of pliers or a sharp knife.
  • Slit the eel’s belly by circling the knife around the ventral opening and pull out the guts and membrane.
  • Loosen the endo-skeleton by pushing it from the tail end towards the head, and let it fall out.
  • Discard the guts and membrane, and rinse the eel thoroughly under cold water.

Filleting the Eel

Once the eel is gutted and cleaned, it’s time to fillet it:

  • Lay the eel on a cutting board and make a slit down the centre of the eel’s back, parallel to the backbone.
  • Run the knife along the backbone, cutting the flesh away from the bones.
  • Discard the backbone and any other bones you find.
  • Cut the eel into pieces, depending on the recipe you’re making.

Cooking the Eel

Now that the eel is prepared, it’s time to cook it:

  • Eel is commonly described as having a sweet, slightly tough texture, and it pairs well with a variety of flavors.
  • In Japan, eel is known as unagi and is a main dish served in many restaurants.
  • The price of eel can be low or high, depending on the supply and demand.
  • Eel can be cooked in a variety of ways, including grilling, frying, and smoking.
  • Keeping the eel firm during the cooking process can be a challenge, but adding a little saltwater to the preparation process creates a slippery texture that adds to the dish’s overall taste.
  • Eel can be classified as either saltwater or freshwater, and the type of eel you use will affect the taste and texture of the dish.

Raw Eel: A Risky Business

Raw food enthusiasts may be tempted to try raw eel, but is it safe? The answer is no. Raw eel is not safe to consume due to the presence of a toxic compound in their blood called thiaminase. This enzyme breaks down thiamine, an essential B-vitamin, which can lead to thiamine deficiency in humans if consumed in large amounts.

Why Cooked Eel is the Way to Go

Cooking eel is the only way to eliminate the toxic compound from their blood, making it safe for consumption. Here are some reasons why cooked eel is the way to go:

  • Cooking eel enhances its flavor and texture, making it more enjoyable to eat.
  • Cooked eel is easier to digest than raw eel, which can be tough and chewy.
  • Cooking eel eliminates the risk of foodborne illness that can occur from consuming raw seafood.

How to Cook Eel Safely

If you’re planning to cook eel at home, here are some tips to ensure that it’s safe to eat:

  • Always purchase fresh eel from a reputable source.
  • Clean and prepare the eel properly before cooking.
  • Cook the eel (here are the best woods to smoke it) to an internal temperature of 145°F to ensure that it’s fully cooked.
  • Avoid cross-contamination by using separate cutting boards and utensils for raw and cooked eel.

Smoking Eels: A Delicacy Around the World

Smoking eels is a traditional method of preparing eel for consumption. It involves smoking the eel over white wood until it is cooked and infused with a smoky flavor. This method is commonly used in Japanese and Chinese cuisine.

Are Eels Good for Smoking?

Eels are perfect for smoking due to their high natural oil content. The oil in the flesh makes it easy to smoke and infuse with flavor. The result is a delicious and tender fish that is perfect for a variety of dishes.

How is Smoked Eel Prepared?

Smoked eel can be prepared in a variety of ways, including:

  • Grilled
  • Steamed
  • Marinated in sauce
  • Served in a donburi bowl (a rice bowl topped with eel)
  • Served as unadon or unagi (grilled eel served with sweet soy sauce)
  • Served jellied with onion and pork (known as angulas or elvers)
  • Served as unajuu (a traditional Japanese dish of eel served in a box)

Why is Smoked Eel Considered a Delicacy?

Smoked eel is considered a delicacy around the world due to its unique flavor and texture. The oily flesh of the eel is similar in appearance to that of cooked crayfish and is commonly known as a “fish pie.” It is a popular dish in many countries and is often served topped with sweet soy sauce.

In addition to its delicious taste, smoked eel is also a sustainable and environmentally friendly option. Eels are commonly found in freshwater and marine environments and are a popular food source in many cultures.


Eels are a delicious and nutritious food source that have been enjoyed for centuries. They’re a great way to add some variety to your diet.

You can eat them raw, grilled, or prepared in a variety of dishes. They’re a great source of protein and don’t have much fat. Plus, they’re pretty easy to find at grocery stores, especially near the fish section.

Joost Nusselder, the founder of Lakeside Smokers is a content marketer, dad and loves trying out new food with BBQ Smoking (& Japanese food!) at the heart of his passion, and together with his team he's been creating in-depth blog articles since 2016 to help loyal readers with recipes and cooking tips.