Kabayaki is broiled fish made by cutting the fish open, removing the bones, and broiling and basting it with a sauce made of soy sauce, mirin (sweet cooking rice wine), sugar and sake (rice wine).
Ingredients such as eel, saury, conger eel, pike eel, loach, blue spotted mud hopper, lamprey eel and snake are used.
But 'Kabayaki' generally refers to 'eel kabayaki.'
Canned saury kabayaki is also commonly available. Eel and conger eel, which are major materials of kabayaki, can also be broiled without the sauce. Those dishes are called shirayaki.
Among various theories, one theory states that it began with the townspeople of Urawa, a post-station town in Edo, serving kabayaki to travelers; another says that because the color of the broiled eel resembles that of gama (cattail), pronunciation of the name gamayaki eventually became corrupted into kabayaki.
History of Kabayaki and the food culture of eel
Eel appeared in the Japanese food culture during the Neolithic Era. As many fish bones have been excavated from the ruins of this era, it can be seen that people in this period caught and ate seafood. Eel bones have been found among these fish bones, which proves that eels have been consumed since the prehistoric times. The first written record of eel appears in a fudoki (description of regional environment, culture and land) written in 713, and also in poems in Manyoshu (Collection of Ten Thousand Leaves) from 759. However, cooking methods are not mentioned in these two records. The word kabayaki appeared for the first time in "Suzuka Nikki" written in 1399. Even though the cooking method is mentioned, it is different from the method that is used today. Prior to kabayaki's appearance, the cooking method and the way of eating eel were broiling the skewered chunks of eel, or the whole eel, if small, and serving it with miso (fermented soy bean paste) or vinegar. An illustration of the Unagishimagahara area (present-day Hara, Numazu City, Shizuoka Prefecture) found in 'Tokaido Meisho no Ki' (a record of noted places along Tokaido Road), which was written in 1661, depicts a large plate piled with skewered eel. The current method of slicing the eel open, removing the bones and putting the eel on skewers appeared around 1700. However, it was still seasoned with miso and vinegar. In 'Ubuge' authored by Kosaku HAYASHI, there is a picture that illustrates people enjoying the cool evening breeze in the Shijogawara area of Kyoto (present-day Shijo Kawaramachi that crosses Shimogyo Ward and Nakagyo Ward in Kyoto City, Kyoto Prefecture).
That picture depicts an outdoor eel vendor with his lamp paper shades bearing the words 'selling split eel' and 'eel kabayaki.'
Later, as Kanto-style dark soy sauce produced in Noda (present-day Noda City, Chiba Prefecture) and Choshi (present-day Choshi City, Chiba Prefecture) in Shimosa Province became widely available, kabayaki made with soy sauce began to appear.
(Even before it was cooked with sauce, eel was known as tasty food in which it was broiled with either salt or miso.)
There was a dish called soy sauce kakeyaki (broiling by basting with soy sauce) that used soy sauce. However, in this cooking method, no matter how many times the eel was basted with soy sauce, the soy sauce was washed off the skin by the fat that oozed out of the eel, and the seasoning did not penetrate into the eel and therefore, the eel was not well-seasoned when cooked.
(It is said that for the kabayaki to be born and to be completed in its current form, it was necessary for seasoning ingredients, such as soy sauce, mirin, rice wine and a sweetener, such as sugar, to be widely available, along with the technique to fillet live eels.)
It is written in 'Zoho Shokumotsu Waka Honzo' (an augmented edition of waka poems on food and medicinal herbs) authored by Genrin YAMAOKA in 1723 that broiled eel should be eaten with sansho (Japanese pepper) miso or soy sauce. However, it is considered that the cooking method at that time was not the same as the present-day method, in which the eel is basted in sauce while broiling. In 'Ryori Komoku Chomi Sho' (an excerpt on the details of cooking and seasoning) published in 1728, there is a mention of eel cooked with soy sauce and rice wine. Its flavor is considered to have been close to what kabayaki tastes like today. In 'Manpo Ryori Himitsubako' (a secret box filled with ten thousand treasured cooking recipes) published later in 1800, there is also a mention of eel cooked with soy sauce and rice wine. Based on the documents, the cooking method of kabayaki that uses sauce is considered to have been established after the mid-Edo period.
The Eel food culture from the aspect of trade
The eel sellers supposedly originated in Kansai region around 1700, and twenty years later, they also appeared in Edo. A picture card from 'The One Hundred Poem Card Game of Noted Places in Edo' published around that time illustrates Tomioka Hachiman-gu Shrine and a street eel seller. In that picture, the street vendor's paper-shade lamp says O-kabayaki, The Specialty. The name o-kabayaki was used for the kabayaki prepared with the present-day cooking method so as to distinguish it from the ones made with the old cooking method that existed since the ancient times.
(around 1750, there were several street eel vendors in the neighborhood of Fukagawa, Edo (Present-day Fukagawa, Koto Ward, Tokyo.)
It is considered that eel restaurants began during the Genroku era (1688 to 1703). Modern-day Japanese cuisine was established during the Bunka era (1804 to 1817) and the Bunsei era (1818 to 1829), and eel, tempura, and sushi became popular among the commoners. Incidentally, both Kanto-style and Kansai-style eel restaurants existed side by side in Edo around 1800. The reason why the Kansai-style eel restaurants existed was that the artisans and cooks, who came to Edo because of Sankinkotai (a system under which feudal lords during the Edo period were required to spend every other year residing in Edo), settled in Edo, and began their trade. Later, the Kanto-style became popular, and the Kansai-style eel restaurants disappeared from Edo.
Eel kabayaki is served by itself or over rice; the latter is called unagi meshi (rice topped with eel). Unagi meshi includes unadon (a bowl of rice topped with eel) and unaju (a lacquer ware box of rice topped with eel). In either case, it is a custom to eat eel kabayaki with powdered sansho, a Chinese medicinal herb that is considered to aid digestion (the custom is considered to have started in Kanto region). Restaurants that specialize in kabayaki are called 'unagiya,' highly reputed of which can be found in various localities.
The 'sauce' used for kabayaki is made with secret recipe unique to the restaurant, with specific instructions such as 'replenish the sauce continuously' or 'put broiled head section.'
The 'sauce' that has been used for several tens of years is said to be the store's prized asset. There is even an episode of a restaurant owner escaping with his pot of sauce because he had to 'take the sauce before anything else' when a disaster struck.
There are differences in the cooking methods between Kansai and Kanto as below.
In Kansai, eel is not steamed before or after broiling. Therefore, lean and slim eels are used. The eel is split open the belly where it is easier to slit. It ends up with a grilled flavor.
In Kanto, eel is steamed before broiling. Therefore, the eel turns out tender. As excess fat drains out, grown-up fat eel can be used. The eel is split open the back.
According to one theory in Osaka, the 'city of merchants,' the belly was split open because it could be cut easier; on the other hand, in Edo, the 'city of samurai,' 'slashing the belly' (harakiri) was considered a taboo, so that the back was slit open. If the eel was split open from the belly side, the flesh on the edges would break apart and fall off the skewers, therefore it was necessary to split open from the back side so that the edges would be thick enough.
Even though sushi has become popular in the western countries, eel kabayaki has not enjoyed the same popularity. Because eel kabayaki is so sweet that it is not popular among Japanese fish dishes in Taiwan and in China, either.