In general, I like airports. After I stand in line, abandon my luggage, stand in line again, take off my shoes, get probed, forfeit irreplaceable souvenirs to the TSA, put my shoes back on, and finally escape, gasping for air, into the white light of the terminal… I like airports. And I especially like international airports, with their abundance of duty-free Scotches (which I have actually never found to be a very good deal) and shops hawking local souvenirs. These shops, while often tacky and overpriced, can be an excellent way to glimpse a city or region’s meibutsu – and this goes for America and other countries in addition to Japan. Think of all the cheese-, football-, and beer-related products you can find in any given store in MKE.
I had no prior knowledge of Nagoya’s meibutsu, but thanks to Chubu Airport’s mezzanine-level arcades, I learned quite a bit in my two short layovers there on the way to and from America. Miso products were ubiquitous. So were instant versions of local noodle specialties, including beef ramen, Taiwan-style ramen, and kishimen きし麺 (flat noodles). And somewhere between the store devoted entirely to shrimp chips and the cuddly shrimp tempura plush toys, I gleaned that the Nagoya area must be famous for shrimp (but that’s just a guess).
But the Nagoya meibutsu that enthralled this viking most was the unagi 鰻, the freshwater eel, mostly thanks to the efforts of a restaurant called Unasyo うな匠 (their Romanization, not mine). I’ve always loved unagi, but at restaurants here in Kyushu, it’s far less common and far more expensive than its drier, blander saltwater counterpart anago 穴子 (Conger eel). And since unagi is rather difficult to cook at home, I’ve eaten much less of it in Japan than I originally hoped I would.
Unagi is one of those foods that has to be done right. It can be downright nasty if it’s too oily, oversauced, or undercooked, and there are far too many sushi restaurants in this world that serve their eel limp and lukewarm – or worse, cold. But Unasyo prepares their kabayaki 蒲焼き eel quite skillfully, and in a variety of ways. I ordered the lunch set, an almost overwhelmingly large trayful of food followed by dessert (not made from eel, thankfully) for 2200 yen. I began with the unagi sunomono, a dish of delightful contrasts that countered the warm, buttery sweetness of the eel with a cold, crunchy salad of cucumber, wakame, and vinegar. The unagi omelette was also pleasant, but the high egg-to-eel ratio obscured the eel’s flavor and made the whole thing a bit bland. More exciting was a bowl of innocent-looking miso soup with a deep, dark secret: internal organs. Which organs, I cannot say, but they were remarkably mild and tasty, a bit like monkfish liver, I thought, with an agreeably smooth but firm texture and no trace of any murky odors you might expect from eel guts.
But my favorite dish in the set consisted of nothing more than the eel filet itself, laid out with no adornments but a light glaze. This dish really allowed the skill of the cooks and the quality of the ingredients to speak for themselves. The eel was rich and fatty, but the fat was solid, lush, and creamy, instead of squishy and slippery like it often is at lesser restaurants. Grilled to perfection, the flesh was firm but supple, with tiny pin bones and bits of carbonized skin providing a quiet crispness. And the sauce was just right, its sweet, savory tang enhancing the eel’s flavor instead of covering it up.
There are a lot of Americans out there who are still unreasonably afraid of eating eel, maybe because of associations with snakes, or maybe for fear of electric shock. Whatever the cause, anguilliphagophobia is treatable. Simply schedule your next international flight through Nagoya and call me in the morning.
Central Japan International Airport 中部国際空港
4F (Chouchin Yokochou ちょうちん横丁)