Traditional Edo eel: Flavour of a bygone era

In the Edo period (1603-1867), the eels caught in the Sumidagawa river, particularly at its mouth in what is now the Fukagawa area of Koto Ward, Tokyo, were called "Edomae" eels, referring to their provenance from "the front of" Edo Castle. They were quite popular among local gourmets.

We can find the phrase, "Fukagawa is a famous source of eels," in some old essays, but Japan after World War II saw fewer fishermen, and the wild Japanese eel is now an endangered species. Nowadays, not many people even know about Edomae eels.

It was during the Edo period's Bunka and Bunsei eras (1804-30), that broiled eels became popular in Edo. It was said that people preferred Edomae eels to the "traveling eels" that were imported from other parts of the country, because they thought the Edomae eels were finer.

In 1805, a food stall called Fukagawa-ya, serving broiled eels, was opened near the Mansei Bridge in Chiyoda Ward. The establishment exists to this very day in Soto-Kanda in the ward, and is now called Myojinshita Kandagawa Honten. Shigeru Kanda, 62, is the 11th-generation master of the business.

He theorizes that the original stall began to serve Fukagawa eels because they were already popular.

Broiled eels were originally found in the Kansai region. As the Edomae eel was too oily to grill, it was steamed to get rid of its fat, a contrast to the Kansai style of cooking. The people of Edo created a sweet and salty eel sauce with a lot of seasonings, which became the favorite sauce of hard-working common people.

Using a secret recipe, Kanda's venerable eatery has served the unique sauce since its establishment.

"If there's some kind of disaster, save the sauce first and then run away" is its traditional motto.

The 200-year-old sauce presents us today with the taste of Edomae.

Lost fishing spot

Until the 1960s, fishermen could catch eels at the mouth of the Sumidagawa river.

Kihachiro Uchida, 81, who runs the boathouse "Uchida" in Etchujima, Koto Ward, was one of them.

Uchida, the eldest son in a fishing family that stretched back several generations, picked up the knack of catching eels without any formal instruction.

"An apprentice at a temple can recite the scriptures untaught," he said, explaining how he learned by osmosis.

It was said that there were over 300 fishermen in Fukagawa at the dawn of the Showa era (1926-1989).

Uchida started to catch eels professionally when he was 16. After rinsing his catch in water from a well, he carried them off in a large heavy basket to sell them.

He caught eels in the Sumidagawa river in June and July and in Shinonome and Ariake from August to October.

To catch eels, he used a long stick with a hook or submerged a bamboo cylinder in the water.

Sometimes he simply grabbed coiled eels in their sleep.

The water at the mouth of the river is a brackish-water region. It is said that the eels fed on mantis shrimp in the river.

"The Edomae eels had a fantastic reputation for their taste," he said.

Uchida misses the days when people enjoyed such eels.

Due to land reclamation, his fishing spot disappeared. Currently, the Shinonome area is full of apartment buildings, and it is difficult to imagine there was ever a fishing spot here. In 1962, the fishery cooperatives was also dissolved. Uchida, one of the youngest, had to quit catching.

"It was sad, but I had to find another job. I wanted to work on a boat," said Uchida who today runs a boathouse, and recalls the former fishing place with nostalgia.

Historic sauce

Takeo Hisazome, 58, assistant director of the Nakagawa Funabansho Shiryokan hall in Koto Ward, who has great knowledge of the history of the ward, said Fukagawa was famous not only as a fishing town, but also for the warehouses that flourished in the Sagacho area during the Edo period.

As the production of soy sauce and mirin had started in the outlying towns of Edo, there were warehouses for rice, seasonings and sake that were transported on the area's canals. This made it an ideal setting for the broiled eel business, and the Edomae eel was a result of Fukagawa's economic development.

In the autumn of 2016, Tokyo's central fish market will be transferred from Tsukiji, Chuo Ward, to Toyosu, Koto Ward, near Fukagawa, and the area will again be "the kitchen of Japan."

"The market coming to Toyosu may revive the good old days for Fukagawa, where fishermen were busy," Hisazome said.

"I hope to see Edomae eels being shipped from here."