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Wed, Jul 28, 2004 - Page 12 News List

Eel is the real deal for heat-wearied Japanese diners

AP , Tokyo

It's another hot summer in Tokyo. All that discomfort gives salesman Katsunori Tanaka a hunger for one thing: a big bowl of grilled eel over rice.

"I need stamina and I think eating eel makes me feel better," said Tanaka, 35, after wolfing down a serving with colleagues near Tsukiji, Tokyo's biggest fish market.

The uninitiated might consider anguilla japonica, or unagi in Japanese, an unappetizing meal. But the Japanese for centuries have considered eel a cure for heat fatigue.

And with the mercury hitting record levels in Tokyo this summer, the eels -- filleted, grilled and slathered in a sugar, soy and rice wine sauce -- are flying out of the kitchens.

Takao Inoue, the manager at Haibara, a popular eel take-out shop near the Tsukiji fish market, can attest to that. He grilled 400 eels on Friday, and estimates he's sold 30 percent more this summer than last.

``When the weather is hot, sales go up,'' he said.

This summer in Japan fits the bill. On Tuesday last week, the temperature in Tokyo hit a record high of 39.5 -- the hottest day on record in the capital since the Meteorological Agency began keeping statistics in 1923.

Sales are up nationwide. Naoko Ueda of Aeon, one of Japan's largest supermarket chains, said sales during the traditional weeklong peak were 30 percent higher this year than last, which was unseasonably cool.

The freshwater fish, which grows about a half-meter in length, is rich in vitamins A, B1, B2, D and E. Its high protein content is also good for bodies wearied by hot, humid weather.

The eel's popularity in Japan goes way back. Manyoshu, a collection of poetry believed to have been published during the 8th century, includes a poem praising eel-eating as a way to prevent weight loss in summer.

Unagi got a major boost with a nifty 18th-century marketing ploy. Legend says that naturalist Gennai Hiraga told an eel dealer he could boost sales by putting up a sign urging customers to eat the creatures on Doyo no Ushi Day, a traditional summer benchmark denoting 18 days before the beginning of autumn under Japan's ancient calendar.

"It was not that Hiraga had any scientific proof that eel was good," said Junji Natsume of the fish farmers' co-op in Lake Hamana, a major eel-producing area in central Japan.

"It had been commonly thought that eel was nutritious and good for those who suffered summer heat. So once the sign was put up, people bought it," he said.

These days, most of the eel going down Japanese gullets comes from abroad. Japanese production plummeted by 50 percent since 1991 to 24,569 tonnes last year in the face of cheaper imports. Some 80 percent of the eel consumed in Japan is imported, mostly from China and Taiwan.

Retailers like Inoue are hoping the hot weather continues.

"I hope it doesn't rain," he said after a long day at the grill.

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