Unagi, as any sushi lover knows, is fresh-water eel. The flesh is placed atop rice, slathered with sauce, and toasted in a small oven. It was my father’s favorite sushi and is also one of mine.
So when our hosts told us they were taking us to an “unagi pie” factory, we were perplexed. How would eel feature in some sort of sweet, baked pastry? Unagi Pie (or “Pai” as it is sometimes spelled on the wrapper) is popular all over Japan.
The factory is in Hamamatsu, and this area is a major source for fresh-water eel. In fact, 19 years ago on my first trip to Japan, I visited an unagi farm, where Quonset huts sheltered big tubs full of growing live eels.
The appetite for unagi in Japan has outstripped production (Japan takes 70% of the all the eel consumed in the world), and Japanese native populations are endangered, which has inspired entrepreneurs from abroad to step in and fill the demand.
We pulled up to the factory, and just inside were attractive young women in pink dresses and hats to welcome us. Walking along a corridor and up some stairs, we soon had a panoramic view of the factory floor.
At first glance, it reminded me of a computer chip manufacturing floor. Workers in bunny suits tended machinery with conveyor belts, robotic arms, and status indicator lights. On closer inspection, one could see the cookies being transported on the belts being brushed with butter by robotic arms, baked, individually wrapped, and packaged into boxes. To my eyes, it looks like half of a heart-shaped palmier, though thinner and more cookie than soft pastry.
After viewing the factory floor from above, we walked on and passed a cafe that served beautiful desserts such as ice cream, gelato, and chestnuts featuring unagi pie and served with ceremonial matcha tea. But was there really eel in it?!?
At the end of the tour was the shop where you could taste samples of the three main flavors: regular, peanut, and V.S.O.P featuring cognac. They tasted good, but was there really eel in it, and why? My cousin was sure there wasn’t eel in the cookies. She was convinced they were simply called unagi pie because of their shape and/or because of the association with the fresh-water eel business of the local area.
One of the pink-clad welcoming ladies approached us, and in excellent English asked us if we had any questions.
“Yes! Is there really eel in these cookies?” I asked?
“Yes,” she replied.
“How long have they been making them?” I ventured further.
“56 years,” she responded.
“And is it unagi flesh in the cookies?” I queried.
“No. The fish bones, fins, and head are dried, ground into a powder, and that is used in the unagi pie,” she answered cheerfully.
No doubt our expressions quickly transformed from wonder to a mixture of horror and disgust, but I suppose she was used to this reaction from Westerners, because she registered no embarrassment or awkwardness.
After verifying we had no further questions, she left us to our shopping. We stood in amazement and confusion. What would possess a person to put fish bones and heads into a cookie?
Thinking about the past, I pictured a booming unagi trade in the eel flesh, and growing piles of discarded tails, fins, bones, and heads. “There must be something we can do with those!” someone must have suggested. But to put them into cookies?
I joked, “just think if a hair dresser thought, ‘what could I do with all this hair? I know, I’ll make cookies!'” But to be fair, the cookies taste great. And the Japanese, having no automatic revulsion to the idea, have embraced unagi pie with vigor: friends from Osaka to Tokyo were quite familiar with and fond of the treat.
And if we look at some of the unpronounceable ingredients in many of our processed foods and did the research to find out where they originated, I suppose we’d be similarly horrified. At least in the case of unagi pie/pai, the ingredient in question is prominently stated in the name.