Eel is the pork belly of the sea: bursting with rich fat that lends itself well to grilling, smoking, searing, and braising. It sinks more than melts in your mouth, flavor seeping thickly across your tongue. Unlike pork belly, however, which has enjoyed a foodie renaissance over the past decade, it’s impossible to find fresh eel outside of Chinatown. Even the popularity of sushi in New York has not endeared Westerners to eating eel on a regular basis. I suspect it has something to do with the fact that most food on the table in the US bears zero resemblance to the animal it comes from, putting some necessary distance between the diner and the victim. A steak has an amorphous shape that doesn’t remind you of its former four-legged, mooing glory. An eel, on the other hand, stays slippery and slithery and semi-cylindrical through the whole process.
None of this crossed my mind when planning this dish. Red-braising is one of my default cooking methods, one that I make small adjustments to depending on the meat in question and the side dishes, so I expected red-braised eel to be pretty straightforward. However, I emerged from this experience feeling a little betrayed. Preparing eel – my favorite fish by far – came with a lot of unforeseen challenges.
Typically, I can navigate Chinatown grocery stores well enough despite the fact that my Chinese language skills are equivalent to those of a toddler. My vocabulary is decent enough to ask for directions and packaged goods are easily recognizable. But a two-year-old cannot fend for himself in the seafood section, and neither can I. “Shan yu!” I proclaimed with confidence to the employee at the seafood counter, only to be met with a blank stare (instead of eel, I had asked for something along the lines of “mountain fish”, a species yet to be discovered). I decided to resort to miming for the duration of the exchange and pointed to the tank of live eels.
The man promptly fished out a small one, chopped off its head, whacked it into segments, and handed me the bag, cheerful in his ability to fulfill my request sans verbal communication. I panicked. How do you mime de-boning, cleaning, filleting? I was familiar with neither vocabulary nor gestures associated with these actions so I mutely took the eel and left. Back in my kitchen, though, I was left with the consequences of my actions. I actually can’t describe the ordeal without getting a little squeamish (which also explains why there are no process photos). At the point when I was starting to get quite confident with my abilities to clean and gut a recently slithering eel, I grabbed a triangular piece that I assumed was the tail. But eels are symmetrical! Its eyes stared accusingly at me. Horrified, I screamed and threw it into the sink. Only in retrospect was this kind of funny.
Despite the fact that this meal was actually incredibly delicious and nutritious, I couldn’t enjoy it as much as I thought I would. I consumed the eel, and in return, guilt consumed me. Maybe de-boning an animal is too intimate of a process to be delegated to the eater. Because even the shredded cabbage I served the eel with struck me as kind of freaky (WHY did it have to look so snakey?) In any case, the recipe is below, but I strongly suggest the use of Google Translate to assist you in your Chinatown ventures.
Red-Braised Eel Recipe (serves 2-3)
- One eel, 2 pounds - cleaned, filleted and chopped into 2-3 inch segments
- 2 tbsp dark soy sauce
- 2 tbsp light soy sauce
- 1.5 tbsp Shaoxing rice wine
- 1.5 tsp of Chingkiang vinegar
- 1.5 tbsp of brown sugar
- 1 inch of ginger, sliced
- 2 scallions, sliced into thin 2-inch vertical strips
Prep work: rinse the eel fillets thoroughly under cold running water and pat dry with paper towels. Slice the eel skin across the fillet, otherwise it will have a tendency to curl up and cook unevenly in the pan. Set in the refrigerator for 1 hour to dry out more completely. Leaving the skin on will allow you to retain most of the flavorful fat, so don't skin the eel!
Searing: heat a generous amount of canola or another oil suitable for searing in a clay pot or enameled dutch oven over high heat. When the oil flows very easily and is almost smoking, place in the ginger slices and let fry for 1 minute. Remove them and add in the eel pieces, skin-side down, flattening them with a spatula to prevent curling. Be careful not to overcrowd the pan; sear in batches if needed. Sear 1-2 minutes on the skin-side and 1 minute on the meaty side. The skin will release from the pan easily when it has crisped up sufficiently; don't move them around or you'll lose all the skin. Set the seared pieces aside.
Deglaze and make the sauce: add 1/2 cup of water to the pan to deglaze any fatty bits that have stuck to the pan. Pour in the soy sauces, vinegar, sugar, and scallion strips; maintain high heat so the sugar caramelizes and bubbles. After around one minute, add in the eel slices meat side down and pour in the rice wine. Try not to hit the crispy skin. Keep cooking over high heat, uncovered, for another minute or so.
Simmer: Lower the heat to low/medium low and cover the pot. Let the eel simmer for 10 minutes or until very tender (this really depends on the size of your eel and thickness of slices, so check frequently). Serve with plenty of rice and vegetables of choice.