Unreal eel: Japan researchers breed unagi-tasting catfish

Unagi, or freshwater eel, is a favourite summer dish in Japan, broiled and grilled with sweetened soy sauce and served with rice. But the price of the delicacy has climbed in recent years, as eel hauls plunged due to overfishing and pollution. Unagi is now listed as an endangered species.

Researchers at Kinki University say they have found a solution: catfish that taste like eel.

A team led by the university's associate professor Masahiko Ariji said they have succeeded in breeding catfish that taste like unagi, and this month the results are being served on a trial basis at restaurants in western Japan.

How good are the catfish? "You wouldn't be able to tell they're not unagi unless you are told so," Mr. Ariji told Japan Real Time. It might not be as good as the most expensive types of unagi that are caught domestically, but is definitely better than cheaper imports, he said.

Mr. Ariji said his team began working on a project to replace unagi with other fish about six years ago. While catfish have a distinctive smell, he learned that it could be removed through proper cultivation. The team worked with an eel farmer based in Kagoshima prefecture and researched the best combination of food for the catfish that would add juiciness to its meat. The final recipe is a secret, but he said it is based on commercially available food for saltwater fish.

Researchers have made progress in unagi farming, but haven't been able to commercialize it yet, partly because of the high cost. Catfish can be completely farm-raised, Mr. Ariji said, adding that if commercialized, it would be available for half the price of unagi.

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