Eel Onigiri

Brand: Bellmart?

Cost: 250 yen

Found at: Tokyo Station Bellmart


I took my grandparents to a sushi restaurant about ten years ago. It was a new restaurant in the international hub of Peoria, Illinois and after two weeks of hamburgers and casseroles and pizza, my wimpy little West Coast self was willing to risk inland seafood to finally eat something that didn’t give me heartburn. My grandparents (whom I had once heard refer to Italian food as “ethnic”) were surprisingly up for the challenge with one stipulation – raw was out of the question. The fish, and everything associated with the fish, would be cooked. Given the distance to the nearest ocean, I felt that this was probably a good call.

So, once we were comfortably seated on the plastic seats of what had clearly once been a Chinese restaurant, I ordered as many eel rolls as I could. Eel sushi is always served grilled and marinated in a delicious, sweet sauce that masks any possible fishiness. It was my own entre into Japanese food, and even among those friends who are decidedly anti-seafood, it is the one sushi option that consistently qualified as “acceptable.” So, I felt that I was fairly safe in ordering a flight of dragon rolls to supplement the agreed-upon California rolls and shrimp tempura. And sure enough, the dragon roll was a hit  – polished off faster than even the tempura shrimp roll.

What I did not realize during our dinner (while I was ceaselessly talking about myself) is that I had not expressly told them that they were eating eel. When this fact came to light at the end of the meal, my grandmother was horrified. “Eel?” she gasped, “I was eating eel?” I felt that it was somewhat of an overreaction from a woman who had happily eaten eel pie in Scotland, but then again, eel sushi was not part of her heritage. To her credit, she soon recovered her composure. If, indeed, her granddaughter had tricked her into eating eel, she might as well embrace it – and for the rest of the week, there was talk of very little else around Hillside Village Retirement Community. It took a fair amount of negotiation, bit in the end, after much discussion in the yoga classes and bridge clubs, she decided that yes, she might have actually liked the eel sushi after all.

And if even my 80-year-old grandmother can come around to Japanese grilled eel, then you know it has to be good. This eel onigiri certainly does not disappoint. The sauce is sweet and savory and the meat has the texture of extremely tender chicken or pork. Unlike most onigiri, the rice was a deep brown, having been liberally seasoned with sweet eel sauce, and the proportion of eel to rice could not have been better. And, as an eel dinner is expensive, this offers a nice, cheap alternative to have the eel experience without the eel price-tag. It you are in Japan and want to expand your horizons – or if you are, like me, already and eel lover – you cannot go far wrong with an eel onigiri. Or two. Or three.

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