Monday, June 26, 2006

Favorite food. unagi. (Part 4).

I am not sure when or where I first ate unagi, but I remember clearly when it became one of my favorite foods. I was in my teens, visiting Taipei for the summer, and my cousin took me out to lunch. She took me to a Japanese restaurant in a little house in one of the older districts of Taipei, owned by a Japanese family (if I remember correctly) who had come to Taiwan during the Japanese occupation and had remained. It was a well-known restaurant, always busy, and there was a long line for a table. Inside, it was bustling and packed with diners seated at tables and benches simply made of plain dark wood. My cousin ordered just two things - incredibly fresh, delicious sashimi, generous, translucent slices of fish that seemed to have leapt straight from the sea onto my plate - and unaju-don.

Donburi is the general term for 'bowl' in Japanese, but it is also the term for any dish that basically consists of a bowl of rice with something, pretty much anything, on top of it. Katsudon - also among my favorites - has a fried pork cutlet with egg over rice (Kitchen, by Banana Yoshimoto, has a description of it, among other foods, that will make you drool and have a sudden, overwhelming craving for some katsudon, which is particularly inconvenient in the middle of the night when you have no access to katsudon whatsoever). Unajudon is broiled eel - unagi - over rice, usually served with pickled vegetables (which seem to come with everything in Japanese cuisine). It is like having a plate full of unagi nigiri (sushi) all to yourself (which never happens, sadly), only better. Incompetent hands render the dish bland and uninteresting, mushy, the sauce too sweet, the eel too soggy. I have had, sadly, many of these in my search for the best one. In expert hands, however, it is one of the most delicious things I can imagine.

This unajudon was perfect. The eel was lightly glazed with a sauce, just sweet enough to caramelize the flesh around the edges, but not so overpowering as to obscure the true, sweet flavor of the eel itself. The skin had rendered out the fat as the fish was grilled (or broiled), becoming crisp, a contrast to the tender flesh and the perfectly steamed white rice. The rice had been lightly sprinkled with black sesame seeds, nutty and fragrant. Everything was hot and fresh from the kitchen, and it was absolutely one of the best meals I have ever had. The unajudon I ate that day is the unajudon all others since have been held up to, and none has ever equalled it. I wonder, even now, if I were to go back to that same restaurant, if it could stand up to the memory I have held close to me for all this time?

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