By Koichi Saijo / Yomiuri Shimbun Staff WriterSUSAKI, Kochi — At the center of a plate placed before me was the head of a moray eel. Although it had been simmered, the face looked as if it was staring at me, making me feel quite afraid.
The dish was served at Daikichi, a restaurant specializing in utsubo (moray eel) in Susaki, Kochi Prefecture.
Pushing the grotesque head to the side, I placed a slice of utsubo meat into my mouth. The meat was seasoned with a sweet, strong-tasting soy sauce. I felt the gelatinous portion between the flesh and skin melt away.
The taste far exceeded my expecations.
“It makes you feel like drinking beer, doesn’t it?” said Kunio Hosokawa, the 69-year-old owner of the establishment.
As it was still lunchtime, I had to resist the temptation for a drink and declined.
Another dish of utsubo served as fresh sashimi had a chewy texture, with a taste similar to that of fugu but lighter. Also served was utsubo lightly seared as a tataki dish. Both the sashimi and tataki went well with ponzu and momiji-oroshi (flavored grated daikon). A seven-dish course that also includes deep-fried utsubo costs ¥3,780 per person.
Moray eels can be found mainly in the seas off Kanto and its southern regions. They have sharp teeth and eat anything — from small fish along the shore to Ise ebi spiny lobsters — thus are dubbed “gangsters of the sea” in Japan.
In Susaki, utsubo have been consumed as part of fishermen’s meals since the days before World War II. From the mid-1950s, other people started to eat the eel after its deliciousness became known as it was bartered for rice and vegetables with farmers from the neighboring mountaineous areas.
Lately, as the fish’s catch in Susaki has been decreasing, more utsubo hauled in from other prefectures such as Wakayama and Nagasaki are now on the market.
While some restaurants in Chiba and Wakayama prefectures serve utsubo dishes in winter, the fish is not usually eaten in prefectures other than Kochi, where sliced utsubo is on shelves year-round at supermarkets and eaten at home in Susaki and its neighboring areas.
“Cutting utsubo is 10 times more difficult than cutting hamo [conger pike, which also has sharp teeth and many small bones],” Hosokawa said.
When Daikichi started serving utsubo dishes about 10 years ago, he took about two hours to cut and trim a single moray eel. In addition to the spine, four rows of small hard bones can be found inside the flesh.
“If you do not skillfully remove the small bones, the meat will crumble,” Hosokawa said. He was taught by a specialized artisan and it took two years until he acquired the skills to cut the fish properly.
Hosokawa goes to the market to buy moray eels weighing 2 to 3 kilograms. He showed me how to fillet them using his knife on the utsubo. He completely removed the rows of small bones by relying only on his sense of touch, lightly feeling their presence in the flesh. It took him just 10 to 15 minutes to fillet each fish into a beautiful piece of white meat. It was certainly a masterly performance.
The number of artisans who can handle utsubo has been decreasing considerably, said Takao Morimitsu, 41, president of Minami Maru, a seafood processing company in the city.
“There are only about seven or eight such artisans in Susaki, including myself,” he said.
His company sells a vacuum-packed grilled utsubo dressed with a savory soy sauce for ¥1,620.
“I want to teach young people how to fillet Susaki’s traditional ingredient to pass on to future generations,” Morimitsu said. “Yet, there are also some secret parts to this technique ...”
He left that comment hanging.
It may one day become impossible to have the chance to eat utsubo dishes because of the dearth of successors who can process the fish. Utsubo is definitely a delicacy that I encourage you to try at least once.
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