A dish of moray eel

Yesterday was a dark, rainy, dismal-Jemmy day on Sagami Bay, and although we were supposed to be fishing for hirame, only one angler in twelve was in luck, and I was not the one.  I managed to catch a lionfish and several moray eels, one of which was as long as my arm.  The poisonous lionfish (it is edible though) went back to the sea, traumatised perhaps but otherwise unmolested, and so did the smaller eels.  On the advice of the captain (“Morays should not be eaten in summertime, they are only good for the table when it is cold”) I kept the largest eel so that I could have something for my kitchen.

I don’t normally include recipes on my blog as many aspiring internet-chefs demand exact measurements, precise cooking times and temperatures, and curiously hold the authors of free online recipes totally accountable for any abysmal culinary failure on their part, or even apportioning blame if the resultant dish does not exactly meet the entirety of their expectations.  Therefore I will only give a brief abstract of how I cook my moral eels, mostly as they can be quite common by-catch here in Japan and many anglers toss them back but will keep an ill-conditioned, dwarfish four-inch aji to eat at home.  Moray eel is far, far tastier than you might expect, and with a slight amount of prep work make a very good dish for the hungry angler.

First you need some moray eels.  Apicius states that eels fed with slaves at regular intervals and harvested at the very last moment make the best eating; I caught mine on sardine livebait as by-catch when fishing for hirame.  For me the hardest part was killing them: usually with fish I cut their spine or gills, depending on the species, or plunge them straight into a bath of ice-water.  Morays have a double-bank of sharp teeth in a very powerful set of jaws, and a habit of rearing up on you like a snake if you try to molest them.  With nothing more than my angler’s knife and a pair of scissors and forceps it would be quite difficult.  However, we were on board a commercial fishing boat and a quick search on deck amongst all the ship’s gear I found a hefty wooden maul (most sea-vessels will have one) and a few shrewd blows to the unfortunate creature’s head at least stopped it rearing up or slithering about all over the deck offering to bite everything.  But you must be careful even if the animal is dead as its jaws will still snap, but I managed to cut off its head and threw it overboard along with most of its innards.  Even without its head the body writhes about, but I wrapped it in a plastic bag and put it in my ice chest with lots of ice and seawater.

Back in the kitchen, the eel needs to be de-slimed.  This is the same principle as de-sliming an octopus or conger eel or slime-flounder: cover the beast with plenty of salt, leave it for ten minutes or so and scrape the solidified slime off with the back of a knife, and then wash the whole thing in fresh water and pat dry.  It was a big creature and the process quite nasty and messy so I don’t have a photo to show you.  After the de-sliming is done the skin of the eel should feel fairly smooth; it has no scales and so is ready for filleting.  Filletting is a matter of cutting from the dorsal side either side of the spine, starting at the head-end all the way to the tail, and pulling out the spine in its entirety (at the same time you should be able to remove the abdominal lining) just like you would do for a unagi or anago eel (it sometimes helps to pin one end of the eel to the chopping board with a nail).  The fillet should then lay out flat like an open book.  Cut the fillet in half at the level of the anal pore; everything abaft the anus is too small and full of bones to eat normally, but can be used to make a very gelatinous stock.  The meaty forward part of the fillet should look like this:


Thread the fillet onto a pair of long metal skewers and lightly salt the skin-side; over the gas fire scorch the skin side (like you would do for katsuo).  This loosens the skin and will help despatch any leftover slime or fishy smells.

Cut the fillet into pieces – you need a knife with a shaving-edge, as the skin is very hard to cut through all the way.  Then the moray is ready for the cooking, in this case the traditional Japanese dish nitsuke, a braising/stewing in soy sauce and sake.  The pieces of moray are laid in a saucepan and partly covered with sake, a few splashes of mirin (sweetened cooking wine) and some dashi stock (if you are cooking a regular nitsuke with a whole fish, you do not need to add the stock) and seasoned with soy sauce and then the whole brought to a rolling boil.  You only need to add a few drops of soy sauce as the mixture will be reduced to about a tenth of its original volume; any more and it will be too salty.  I also like to add a small knob of peeled ginger.  Once the stewing sauce has reduced a bit you can add small things for variety; here I put in some green manganji peppers (kind of like a Japanese version of pimientos de Padrón) but in Japan almost anything can be chucked in like daikon radish, tofu, goboh (Japanese burdock root), onions, anything that will soak up some of the sweet stewing liquor.

As the stock reduces you need to lower the gas fire accordingly, and cover the fish with a lid or a layer of tinfoil (or use a traditional Japanese wooden lid that goes inside the pan, called otoshibuta).  There are as many ways of making nitsuke as there are Japanese grandmothers and therefore no way to do it “right”, but the orthodoxy is that the fish should be kept moist with a lid and not heated too high to drive off the nice fish aromas and tastes, nor too long.  Some people add garnishes of finely shredded ginger or spring onion.  One thing I definitely do, and many people do not, is add a steeping stage.  Once the dish is ready, I switch the gas off and leave it, covered, for ten minutes or so to cool slightly.  The fish itself and any vegetables will absorb the cooking liquor and colour much better when it has cooled to about 60ºC.  After that I return it to the fire and heat it to serving temperature.  Here you have it, moray eels braised Japanese-style in soy sauce:


6 responses to “A dish of moray eel

  1. Regarding the moray’s edibility, was the captain concerned about ciguatera or something else? Anyway, interesting post as usual. I can smell the broth!

  2. Barbra & Jack, It wasn’t ciguatera (I asked). It is a matter of the taste of the flesh; because the eels eat more and a greater variety of things in summer the meat can have off-tastes (rather like kurodai, or mejina, both considered as winter-eating fish). This moray had no weird tastes and was remarkably pleasant, including the skin which was jelly-like and delicious!

  3. A great many thanks for this outstanding article.
    Moray eel was greatly appreciated by the Romans 2000 years ago, but somehow got forgotten by even the greatest of chefs up until this very day. As a result, I can buy the best moray eel here in Portugal at only 5 euros per kilo, and we don’t have to worry about the tropical fish poisoning!
    To me the taste is, indeed, second to none, a true delicacy with no comparable counterpart in the entire marine biology.
    Your tricks of de-spining, de-sliming and scorching the skin are invaluable, as well as the cooling period before serving. Of course, the Japanese style must do it great justice. Apart from that, the sky is the limit to be creative with it: papillotte, fried, grilled, cataplana, sous-vide, even smoked: once bitten for ever smitten!

    • Jeff, thank you for reading and for your comment!
      5 Euro a kilo is a bargain! I’ve never seen morays for sale here in Tokyo, but it is served as a local delicacy, either stewed like here or deep fried, in some places in the country.
      What is cataplana?

  4. Well done , great post.
    I will stop cutting them off the line now!


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