At this time of the year most members of Dubai's Japanese expatriate community flee the unbearable heat and head home for holidays.

Much to the regret of Ryuta Sato, chef at one of Dubai's best Japanese restaurants, Miyako, he is still in the Hyatt Regency hotel.

Because it's the traditional Japanese cuisine that comes up with an antidote to high summer temperature levels, even in the Gulf: Eel, or, in Japanese, "unagi".

"It's part of our culture", Sato says, "to eat eel at the end of July".

People in Japan believe eel builds stamina and combats lethargy especially during the hot summer days. And they declared one day at the end of July "Eel Day" - or "Unagi Day" - or "doyo no ushi no hi".

The exact date varies due to divergences of the traditional Japanese calendar from the one in use in the West, lying within the "doyo" period, as the sweltering dog days of summer are called in Japan.

It's defined by ecliptic longitudes of the sun, so the dates slightly change each year. Following the Japanese calendar, there are even two Unagi Days this year, July 24 and August 5, but much eel is enjoyed through this entire period.

With many of their regular guests away, Miyako does not cater for a particular unagi festival, but eel is expected to count among the preferred orders these days. "We serve a couple of eel dishes, and our guests really enjoy it", says Sato.

Unagi, a category of freshwater fish with a quite distinctive taste, is very popular in the Japanese cuisine and also considerably expensive. At the end of July, when restaurants across Japan are packed with eel eaters, the price shoots up. And so it does in Dubai.

Meal of joy

Not only Japanese enjoy eel as a meal. According to Masa Morino, chef at Tokyo@thetowers, another renowned Japanese restaurant in Dubai at Emirates Towers, the fish is "very popular not even among our Japanese guest, but also among European and Arabian customers".

Tokyo@thetowers serves eel as a sushi delicacy or, in a more sophisticated way, as "hot eel" together with tasty soya sauces mixed with sweet rice wine. "A lot of people like it," Morino says.

How does eel taste? At first, its tender white flesh does not taste like anything else. If eaten blindfolded, not many would be able to distinguish if this food is a land animal or a fish. Eel has only a slightly fishy taste, more like scallops or lobster, though some say it can be compared to crunchy lemon chicken or the like.

But why do Japanese believe the slippery fellow will build stamina and give strength to cope with the summer heat? First of all, there is some kind of energy transfer anticipated out of the eel's ability to endure its long migratory trek to spawning grounds.

Secondly, the eel's flesh carries a decent arsenal of proteins and vitamins, even if it is quite fatty.

However, the belief is at least partly based on nutritional facts and not only on superstition.

Japan consumes around 130,000 tonnes of eel a year, culminating in the summer season. This is 70 per cent of the world's consumption. The fish is served mostly in the shape of a dish known as kabayaki, or broiled eel.

If not caught in the country, eels are imported from Korea, Taiwan or the Philippines, or less frequently from Europe, India, Indonesia or New Zealand.

People who are in a hurry and do not have time for an eel dinner now can enjoy an energy drink made of eel. A canned drink called "Unagi Nobori" ("Surging Eel"), made by Japan Tobacco Inc, hit the shelves in Japan this month.

The eel

Eels are a species of fish that live in shallow waters or hide at the sandy bottom of the oceans. The holes eels dwell in are called eel pits. Some eels get into fresh water. Freshwater eels are the ones preferred in Japanese cuisine. It is important to know that eel blood is toxic. Cooking destroys the toxic protein it contains.

Dish made of eel used to be cheap for coastal residents and fishermen once, but the increased rarity of the fish has made it a costly culinary delight with prices going up to Dh5,000 per kilogramme.

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