My first run in with an eel was at F Cooke on Broadway Market. It was the morning after Burn’s Night, and a group of us were feeling a little delicate. We wandered over to Broadway Market in search of sustenance. Something to make us feel better. Something like a pulled pork bun.
We split up, and after five minutes, all began to reconvene outside F Cooke clutching something big and doughy. All except one, that is. Overwhelmed by choice, he’d panicked and not bought so much as a sausage, announcing instead that “when in the east end, you should eat eels”.
An admirable sentiment. But not many people eat jellied eel any more, particularly not for the first time when nursing a hangover. I tried the smallest, most pathetic mouthful, and can report that it was actually worse than I’d anticipated. The bones were sharp on the roof of my mouth, and the jelly was slimy and gummy.
One thing worth mentioning about jellied eel is that the gelatinous textures which defines the dish (and also make it a little like cat food) isn’t used that much in cooking any more. Decades back, gelatine was used a lot more freely. Honestly, the ’60s was the era of the savoury jelly salad. But now, hard jelly-like textures are quite a rare thing. An Asian pandan jelly, and the odd molecular cube. But not much else.
The point is, that eel’s reputation is tarnished by jellied eel. Bony fish and clear jelly in a Styrofoam cup is a hard sell in the 21st century.
Smoked eel, however is a very different thing. Particularly as people are understandably going wild for smoky flavours, and oily fish at the moment.
I had a surreal East End moment last week, when I found myself walking down Kingsland Road with a smoked eel under my arm, having gone to pick it up from a delivery depot under Haggerston railway arches. They are enormous beasts. Well over a metre, with sharp teeth and angry little faces. It’s been residing in the fridge ever since, and repeatedly alarming poor Tom whenever he goes to get some milk.
Eel can be bought in simple fillets, which are perfect for sandwiches (I had some great eel on toast at Mayfields the other week, and they’ve also got it on the menu at Quo Vadis). A whole eel is more entertaining though. I lopped off its head, and have been having great fun cooking with it since. It was already boned, so I’ve just been cutting off chunks of the dense, oily, smoked meat and using it for all sorts of different things.
I’ve popped two recipes below (I’m sure there will be more). The first is a noodle dish, inspired by the amount of eel (or ‘unagi’) used in Japanese cooking. Rice and noodles make a nice plain backdrop to the big flavours. Smoked eel is also nice in salads or on sandwiches, and pairs well with similar flavours as smoked salmon: beetroot, horseradish, a squeeze of lemon, cream cheese…
I got my smoked eel from Corine at The Dutch Eel Company Ltd (firstname.lastname@example.org). If you’ve cooked with a smoked eel, then do drop me a note to let me know at the bottom of this post. I’ve got a lot of eel left, and (somewhat unsurprisingly) there aren’t that many recipes online!
Smoked Eel Noodles
For the sauce
2 tsp rice wine vinegar
1 tsp sugar
2 tsp soy
1/2-1 tsp tahini paste
Smallest pinch of xanthan gum (optional)
1/3 cucumber, halved lengthways, seeds scooped out and sliced thinly, diagonally
50g dried udon noodles
50g smoked eel
1 tbsp fried shallots (I have a tub from Longdan)
1 tsp sesame seeds
Start by making the sauce. Put the rice vinegar and sugar in a jam jar. Microwave for 15 seconds, until the sugar dissolves. Stir in the soy and tahini paste.
At this point the taste is there, but the sauce splits. I don’t think that it really matters too much. But because the ingredients in my kitchen are becoming increasingly ludicrous, I added a pinch of xanthan gum, and shook it all up to bind and slightly thicken the sauce. Optional!
Pour the sauce into the bottom of a bowl, and then tip the cucumbers on top so that they can begin to soak up the flavours.
Cook the noodles according to the packet. Drain, return the noodles to the pan, and then pour the sauce and cucumbers over it and toss the smoked eel through it.
Use tongs to put the smoked eel noodles into a dish (you might want to leave a little of the sauce behind so it’s not too wet). Garnish with fried shallots and sesame seeds.
Smoked Eel Salad
1 cos lettuce
1/2 avocado, cubed
50g eel , roughly sliced
For the dressing
2 tbsp oil (I’m using rapeseed at the moment)
1 tbsp lemon juice
1 tsp grainy mustard
generous pinch of salt
Start by shaking together everything for the dressing.
I bought a lovely big cos lettuce this morning. I thinly-sliced some of the watery-white parts from the root, and some of the thin green parts from the top of the leaf to get nice contrast.
Put the lettuce, cubed avocado and eel in a dish, and then use your hands to thoroughly coat in the dressing and present on a plate.