A Culinary History of the Eel, “The Poor Man’s Delicacy”

by Owen James Burke

Jellied eels

East-End Londoners enjoy a cup of cold jellied eel, a staple since the 18th century in working-class England.

Eels are deeply seated in the culinary traditions and histories of many cultures as being a cheap, nutritious and sustainable fix of protein for the working class, but could they be headed down the path of the lobster, the crab and the oyster?

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In the East End of London, saltwater eels, which are high in fat content, are boiled in a stock with spices and set to cool in a cup. The fat congeals and forms a gelatinous texture around the meat. The dish — called jellied eels — is served cold. There are even bars known as “Eel, Pie and Mash Houses” that specialize in serving just this dish. The European eel, which hasn’t been reported to have swum in the Thames for roughly two hundred years, was brought from Holland during the Victorian period in its years of heightened popularity. They are still imported today, but are no longer regarded a “poor man’s delicacy.”

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The European eel has been going through some hard times. It’s seen a 90% plunge in stocks within the last thirty years, and has been listed as an endangered species. Fortunately, the species has had a few bumper years and with a little luck, organizations like the Sustainable Eel Group (SEG) will help to provide better conditions and opportunities for the eels begin to thrive again.

In Northern Europe, where stocks may be marginally better, eel is traditionally smoked (and often canned), and the Maori of New Zealand have been wrapping the massive long fin eel, in flax leaves and baking them over hot stones since well before any European sailors landed there.

Many Eastern cultures have long revered the eel as a delicacy. Unagi, or freshwater eel, is a very popular dish in Japan, and it is believed in Korea that the Japanese eel is complimentary to the male libido.

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There is no more highly sought-after eel on the planet than the glass eel (or eel fry). Just like the lobster, the crab, and the oyster, which were once food left aside for the lower class, the elite class has caught on. Quite a long way from the dinner tables of hungry working class families, glass eels are now selling for over $500 US per pound in markets and pushing $100 US per plate in many restaurants.

Whether canned and shipped across an ocean or pulled straight from the sea and cooked live, the eel is a chef’s oyster. Although it’s very rich in fat, its mild flavor is amenable to an endless variety of preparations and flavors to which most fishes are not. However, I suppose it would be considerate to note that no eel should ever be eaten raw; their blood is highly toxic to humans, and the cooking process is what makes them safe. For scale, it only takes about one-tenth of a milligram to bring an animal the size of a rabbit to its demise. So, experiment all you want, Gordon Ramsay, but make sure that shit’s cooked.

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