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Can You Eat an Eel?

Yes, an eel is perfectly edible. But it’s one of those fishes that need to be properly cleaned and cooked before consumption, since raw eel blood contains compounds that are toxic to mammals, including people. However, this is easily remedied when the eel is filleted and cooked (since the blood drains away in the process and any leftover toxic compounds get destroyed during the cooking process). 

Not only is eel edible, but it is a widely used ingredient across Asia and is considered somewhat of a delicacy in the West. Yet some consider the eel to be dangerous for consumption. While there is certain legitimacy for some of the concerns, they’re usually blown out of water.

Eel is Perfectly Edible

While eel blood (and sometimes skin, when it comes to certain sub-species) is toxic, “de-toxifying” it is so easy that if you don’t know about the eel blood being toxic in the first place you’d never guess.

When the eel is properly cleaned and fillet the blood automatically drains in the process. If the sub-species has toxic skin, it’s usually de-skinned by the seller themselves.

Any last but not least – the toxic proteins in the eel blood and skin are vulnerable to heat. So if there are any toxins left even after the fish is cleared, it’s destroyed during the cooking process.

The big secret to enjoying eel without having to fear poisoning is to cook it properly. Don’t ear eel raw and you’ll be just fine.

Eel Characteristics

Eels, while often referred to as snakes, are actually just elongated fish. They can range anywhere between 2 inches to 13 ft in length, with larger ones weighing up to 55 pounds.

They possess no pelvic fins and most species also lack pectoral fins, with dorsal and anal fins fusing with caudal or tail fin. In past, this drove people to erroneously think of them as completely lacking in fins and scales.

Eel meat is said to be somewhat similar to a raw salmon or catfish in taste, but lighter – subtly sweet and non-overwhelming, with a slightly chewy texture.

In Japan and Korea, they’re widely considered to be a good source of energy, particularly in summer.

They might not be very far off from the truth, since eel is jam-packed with multiple nutrients. Like many other fishes, eels are a fantastic source of Omega-3 fatty acids, but they also contain a wide assortment of other minerals and vitamins. Most important among them phosphorous. Which plays an important part in the formation of bones and teeth, and the body making protein for cell and tissue growth, repair, and maintenance, as well as helping with digestion and metabolism, which is a nice little bonus.

Other assorted vitamins the eel can provide are vitamins A, D, E, B1, B2, B12. Though do keep in mind that vitamin D from any food source is just a supplement to what you get from the sun, so by itself, it could be insignificant.

The Best Ways of Eating Eel

As mentioned above, as long as the eel is properly cleaned, filleted, and cooked, it’s not only perfectly edible but one of the most nutritious and tasty seafood options.

First things first, you likely shouldn’t be worried about the eel skin – it should be removed by the professional as soon as the eel is out of the water. This is because eel skin dries out fast and becomes difficult to remove – so if you’re buying a living one in the fish market then double-check with the seller, but they should know to remove it without being reminded.

To get rid of the eel’s blood – you’ll have to fillet it. If you’ve ever filleted any type of a finfish, you already know what to do, but if not, this is how it should go:

1. Use a sturdy small knife you have a good grasp on. Put it in the ventral opening and start cutting towards the head.

2. Do not try to take out the guts yet, simply push them aside.

3. Move towards the backbone and cut the membrane – work on one side first, then move to the other side.

4. If you filleted the eel the right way, the guts should fall out on their own, without extra effort on your part.

Now that your perfect eel fillets are ready, you can get cooking.

Oven Roasted

Like other fish, the eel can be roasted – and it’s possibly the easiest way to enjoy it. Some even whole roast it, but make sure the eel is cleaned by the professional before you risk cooking it whole.

Rub a generous amount of salt and black pepper over the eel, place in a pan, and brush with an ample amount of extra virgin olive oil. Then roast for around 20-25 minutes. Drizzle with some lemon juice and enjoy.

Japan: Unadon

Japanese are the largest eel-consumers in the world, so they definitely know a thing or two about how to cook it right. One of the most popular Japanese eel dishes is Unadon – ie. Unagi Donburi. Donburi literally means “rice-bowl dish”, it’s typically topped with either fish, meat, and/or vegetables and is named accordingly. So, a rice bowl topped with pork, for example, would be called Butadon (buta – pork).

Eel for unadon is typically cooked kabayaki style. After your eel is gutted, boned, and filleted, cut the fillets into squares, skewer them, dip them in a sweet soy sauce-based sauce (if your local Asian market doesn’t sell unagi sauce, then teriyaki will do just as well), and cooked over a charcoal grill.

If it sounds too complicated – don’t worry, most people simplify the recipe when cooking at home. Skip the skewering, just dip the fillet squares in the sauce, and then broil or grill the eel in the oven for around 7 minutes.

Put your grilled eel over the rice – and voila! Unadon is done.

Italian: Anguilla alla Luciana

The Italians also enjoy eel skewers, it seems. The eel is cut into pieces, skewered, and roasted in the oven with bay leaves.