Time for another edition of #diningwithbabels!
Do you like unagi? The Japanese freshwater eel is one of my fave dishes. It’s soft and plump and undeniably crispy after being basted and charred over the barbecue grill. I used to order it over a simple bed of sushi rice as a child. YUM!
If you love unagi, I have the perfect resto for you. If you’ve never tried unagi but are keen to see what all the fuss is about, grab a friend and come along to Man Man Unagi! Located just at the base of Duxton Hill, but “technically” in Outram Park, it’s a tiny, corner restaurant, up a few stairs from the courtyard off of Keong Saik Road.
There was a line snaking out the door and into the courtyard but it moved quickly and we were inside and seated within 10 minutes or so. The interior looks like any other Japanese restaurant, warm yellow lights shining down on rows of small wooden tables, shared plates of sauces and chili pepper laid out in between patrons bent over their meals.
A tank of live eels that are specially imported from the Mikawa Isshiki region of Japan (apparently known for unagi!) sits near the front door a few feet away from the kitchen.
Much like a sushi bar, guests are able to sit at the bar looking into the kitchen as unagi chefs clean and gut the eels, filleting them in front of you before passing the meat over to another chef to baste and barbeque over the charcoal fire grill. Talk about fresh!
It was a little brutal to see the eels being sliced open right before your eyes, still wriggling about under the knife, but once past the initial witness shock, you realize the level of skill, expertise, and dedication that the unagi masters display – a culinary trait I think is embodied by many Japanese chefs…like sushi or ramen masters! They dedicate their entire careers (basically entire lives!) perfecting their one specialty. It’s really remarkable.
The restaurant’s menu basically lists every possible preparation of eel one might want to enjoy. You can choose fresh water eel (unagi) or salt water (anago), grilled whole, served over rice, double meat – the choice is yours! There were also some wagyu beef options but in a restaurant entirely known for their unagi, we weren’t about to order anything else.
We both ordered the hitsumabushi which we were excited to see looked like a delicious bowl of unagi over rice with a bunch of smaller accompaniments that we didn’t know how to approach. Glancing around at the rest of the restaurant we noticed how intricately people were eating what looked like such a simple meal to us. We were hesitant. Did we dig in or try and figure out what everyone was doing? Finally, our table neighbors took pity on us and explained the process of consuming hitsumabushi.
To the naked eye, it looks like another bowl of unagidon, grilled eel over rice, but ohhhh no, my friends, it is much, much more. The tray comes with a bowl of perfectly seasoned sushi rice topped with deliciously char grilled eel. A small plate of Japanese pickles, another plate of fresh wasabi with a tiny personal grater, a bowl of broth, and a personal saucer of flavored dashi broth accompany the eel.
Hitsumabushi is a three-step process. Step one involves tasting the eel and rice alone, perhaps sprinkling a bit of spring onion and nori seaweed on top for flavor. Enjoy the taste of the grilled eel by itself and take in the full flavor palette of the simple meat.
Step two asks you to scoop up some eel with rice and this time, grate some of the fresh wasabi root over your spoon. You can also drizzle a little bit of sauce (soy or spicy) on top as well.
Finally, the third step is to take some eel with rice and mix it in with some dashi broth in the empty bowl forming a makeshift porridge.
The soupy porridge was by far our favorite way to eat the eel. Unagi, if you haven’t had it before, has an extremely rich taste. It’s savory for sure but complemented by the sweetest coating of bbq char. It’s excellent! Adding a bit of broth and slurping it up with a spoon was so unbelievably satisfying. Plus it made the meal last for what seemed like ages…which is always a plus in my eyes 🙂
Find Man Man Japanese Unagi Restaurant at #01, 1 Keong Saik Road (inside the little courtyard!) Expect to spend about $20-$30 per person and pick a seat away from the bar if you’re squeamish! There will probably be a line but it goes quickly and the food is well, WELL worth it.