Monday, July 24, 2006

smoked eel

When I was a sweet young thing, 18 in fact, I went on a first date with a guy who’d turn out to be significant in my life. There had been other attempts at dates preceding this – to a concert (Madness – now that will give away what decade we are talking about here!), a movie (where he showed up with 8 of his mates) but this was the first going out to dinner type of date. Romantic. One on one.

His choice of restaurant seemed curious - the formal dining room of a modest hotel in the centre of the city. The type of place commercial travellers stayed and ate a steak at a corner table. I’d never gone beyond the tacky student bar or the family “Cobb and Co” restaurant at street level. I didn’t even know there was a dining room.

The place was a bit stiff, proper, without going over the top. White napkins. A traditional menu for the ‘80s. That is all I remember* except one thing – we had smoked eel on buttered brown toast as an entrée. My love for eel began there and then. My love for him would take another month before it began to kick in.

I don’t know what the prejudice is about eels. Sure out in the wild they are slippery slimy creatures, things you wouldn’t want to feel brush your leg while swimming in a lake. On the plate, though, is a different story.

New Zealand was never known for a culture of exotic food. The land of the long sliced, white loaf. Roast lamb with mint sauce. Pavlova with lashings of cream and passionfruit. Mostly imported English stodge. Although Maori cuisine is largely characterised by the hangi, they also has a long tradition of smoking foods – especially muttonbirds, rainbow trout and eels. Here in Australia I can find nothing that tastes remotely like the ambrosial quality of a trout freshly caught from a mountain stream and then hot smoked over manuka branches – but when I am homesick a little bit of smoked eel goes a long way.

There is at least one stall at Vic Market that sells whole, smoked eel. The supplier has changed since I last got one and instead of being assaulted with a strongly salted, smoky flavour – I was met with a delicate taste and decidedly less greasy than others I have eaten. I didn’t miss the jelly like layer of fat, but a little more salt would have lifted the flavour. The flesh however was pale and delicate, not as red tinged when filleted.

In New Zealand, I have found lovely little skinned and boned fillets, vacuum packed in the supermarket refrigerator. There is a particularly nice local brand I found in Greytown, which is worth a drive over the hill for. However here in Melbourne it’s likely you will have to get down and dirty with the beast. Don’t let it put you off. I promise the experience is worth the effort.

The fatty eels are easier to peel. After chopping off the head and the tail the skin comes off like peeling a banana, but you will need to scrape the jellied oil layer off with a spoon or a knife. Next slice out the backbone.

If you were the kind of kid who liked licking the beaters after making a cake or gnawing on a chop bone, you’ll love taking the spine and scraping off the flesh with your teeth. It is one of life’s primal, very satisfying experiences. Because of this it’s best preparing the eel alone, so there are no squabbles over the best bits!

Now you have some fillets of sumptuous smoked eel – what can you do with them?

The easiest is a return to the Dining Room of the St George Hotel (and how I ate it for years after), simply layer it on the best quality grainy, hot, buttered toast. A squeeze of lemon juice and some cracked black pepper completes the dish.

If you want to get fancier, it extends well to make a pasta salad – a good vinaigrette, parsley, cherry tomatoes, spring onions or chives. Play a little with the ingredients.

You can make a mousse. I’ve made a dairy-free version using good quality mayonnaise, finely sliced spring onions or parsley, with some garlic and lemon juice. But remember it is a rich and oily fish. While a little dab on crackers is great, too many and it will get your gallbladder working over time.

But for a simple entrée – on the weekend I put together a little eel salad.

Simple smoked eel salad
Smoked eel fillets, cut into strips or chunks
Spring onions (or garlic chives)
Cherry tomatoes (if out of season use some semi dried tomatoes)

Chop your salad vegetables into small to medium sizes. Assemble in small bowls with pieces of smoked eel on top. Dress with either lemon or lime juice, or a vinaigrette. A dollop of good quality mayonnaise is also worth trying. Some finely shaved fennel bulb would have been a great twist, but I was using what I had at hand.

Eel of course is not limited to the smoked variety. There is jellied eel, which for me the mere thought of causes a rather unpleasant shudder. But there is also unagi, the Japanese take on the mighty eel. Usually grilled with a sweet, teriyaki style sauce – I indulge occasionally in unadon (on rice) for lunch, or the delightful “boxed eel” sushi, with shitake mushrooms at my favourite Japanese restaurant.

And as for the man? Well, a bit like my love for smoked eel, my feelings for him have endured over time and space. A morsel now and then can be nostalgic, but not a dish to be dined on every day.

* update: The other side of the collective memory emailed me to let me know an important foodie fact - we drank Gewürztraminer. Now that really places the meal in time and space!

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Blogger foodkitty said...

I guess vegetarians might go "eeewwwgghhhh", but I had a lubbly smoked eel and black pudding salad in Picton recently, served on a Granny Smith (I think)apple salad. You might think the sweetish eel and the sweetish black pudding might be a mistake, but both worked really well.

5:49 pm  
Blogger Anna said...

thanks for all the eel tips. there was a market underneath my apartment on sunday and a smokehouse had a stall there. they were selling smoked eel and although i was interested to try it, i didn't know what to do with it. i love japanese style teriyaki eel so with your suggestions here maybe i can buy the smoked eel next sunday.

11:21 pm  
Blogger Ange said...

I have to confess I am anti eel. Growng up my Grandfather used to catch & smoke his own eels & even sell some at the local markets. After tagging along fishing & seeing the catch swimming around in his bathtub before smoking I was never able to bring myself to taste even one teeny morsel of eel flesh. I'm afraid its just one of those things I may never get over!

9:54 am  
Anonymous kitchen hand said...

Great post. Eel is delicious. I have the eel with rice at Wing Loong off Little Bourke Street, opposite the Asian supermarket.

2:21 pm  
Blogger ThirdCat said...

I still like gewurtztraminer. Every now and then. Just a bit. Is that wrong?

7:46 pm  
Blogger angerjas said...

An estonian american here. When I was a kid in the 1950s, when my family drove out to our "country" place, there were smoked eel shacks on Long Island every couple of miles. When I was a teen, father and I used to rent a rowboat, put a lantern on the bow and go eel spearing on weekend nights. We used to get dozens. When I brought my Anglo girlfriend out on the weekend, my grandmother fried up some eels, and gf was a little put off when the eel jumped off the frying pan and wiggled across the floor. Sad to say I haven't had a smoked eel in 20 years

11:22 am  
Blogger Sonja Heinze Coryat said...

Hi: My parents were German/Danish and immigrated to NY. When I was a kid we grew up eating smoked eel, usually on Fridays. I never thought a thing of it, even though they looked like snakes. We ate them with black pumpernickel bread. My mother said this was necessary, to soak up the oil. Occasionally she fried them fresh and I remember hearing her scream once in the kitchen because one of them was squirming around in the pan. Actually, it was dead; it was the heat causing these involuntary movements. I haven't seen eel for sale anywhere here in middle America, where I live now. See my blog: -- it's about food, etc.

3:41 am  
Blogger Another Outspoken Female said...

I'm glad I am not the only person in the world to continue to eat eel. After gyoza and cooking whole fish, eel is the 3rd most common specific food search this blog receives. There is a lot more of us out there than you'd think :)

7:58 am  
Anonymous jonathan said...

We sell smoked eel at our local farmer's market and you will all be pleased to know that it is a popular item - keep publishing the recipes! Thanks

5:38 pm  
Blogger Another Outspoken Female said...

Oh Jonathan - you got me all excited thinking you might be a new, local (Victorian) supplier. Now I find I have to travel all the way to Covent Garden to taste your wares! Watch out, I might just do that.
I promise to update my tags - there are more smoked eel recipes on the blogs, just check the drop down boxes on the side.

6:29 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am looking for a place that sells smoked eel and will ship some to Golden, Colorado.
If anyone knows of such a place please email me at
Many thanks

5:21 am  
Anonymous dalliss said...

Hey there glad to see so many eel lovers we get them fresh from the creek and smoke them ourselves. We sprinkle rock salt and brown sugar on them before smoking.

5:56 pm  
Blogger Another Outspoken Female said...

Dalliss - I'd love to taste that!

5:53 pm  
Blogger Pythia said...

I found this while looking for smoked eel recipes - my step dad has recently started up a gourmet smoked eel business in Canterbury, NZ!
So far, the market for it seems to be pretty good. A lot of people are commenting how great it is to be able to find smoked eel again.
So if you're ever back in NZ and down Christchurch way, get in touch if you want eel!
I'm honestly not sure if we could ship overseas. I don't think it would be worth the probably extensive hassle.
But do pass on the name to anyone you know in NZ who might like some.
It's great to hear of fellow eel lovers and gather new recipes!

Moko 2009 Ltd

7:29 pm  
Blogger Gerda said...

where can I buy smoked eel in Invergargill area?
I am currently visiting from Auz land and its very hard to precure there. Anyone?

12:20 pm  
Blogger Rosa, George, Chiara, Cas, Eve & Annick said...

i bought some this weekend at the farmers' market in St Kilda, Melbourne. St Kilda Farmers' Market is held on the first Saturday of each month from 8.30am to 1pm at the Peanut Farm Oval, behind Acland Street, near Luna Park.

3:24 pm  
Blogger Another Outspoken Female said...

Glad there's another supply of smoked eel for those who don't shop at Vic Market.

Coincidentally i just posted a new smoked eel recipe a week or so ago. What do you think of it?

4:12 pm  
Blogger MDM said...

I looooooooooooove eel... not easy to find smoked here in northern Italy though... Ciao!

8:21 pm  
Anonymous plasterer bristol said...

I've never tried this, looks and sounds delicious, thanks for sharing


1:59 am  

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