Can You Eat American Eel?

Written by in Fishing
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When most people think of American eel, they don’t really think of it as a fine delicacy. 

However, it is treated as such in Asian cuisines, and is a favorite when added to sushi in particular.

So can you eat American eel? Eel is eaten all over the world, particularly in Japanese, Chinese and Korean cuisine as well as in Europe, particularly England and Italy, and the United States. They can be prepared by filleting, grilling, frying and can be made into sushi, however, like most fish recipes, they must be properly cleaned, skinned and gutted before preparation.

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Eels have been eaten in America for hundreds of years as they were readily available and easy to prepare. 

Today, the process of cooking and eating eel has become widespread and more complex with various recipes and methods to prepare it.

Can You Eat American Eel?

Eel has been eaten for centuries all over the world as long as it was available to people. This was done mainly in East Asia, Europe and America due to its easy access and preparation.

The consumption of seafood varies in ancient Greece, however, as they ate eel in addition to fish, shellfish and more, particularly in Lake Copais.

It was readily available in England and became especially popular with the opening of the first “Eel Pie and Mash Houses” in the 18th century. Certain cultures forbid eating eel, for example, the Jewish religion does not allow the consumption of eel and shellfish.

On the other hand, eels were a traditional meal eaten by indigenous American tribes. Refer to the list below to find out where exactly eels were eaten during these times.

Tribes That Eat Eel:

  • Micmac
  • Montagnais of Lake St. John and St. Lawrence River
  • Eastern and Western Abenaki
  • Northern Iroquois
  • Penobscot
  • Rappahannock
  • Onondaga
  • Plateau

In previous years, eel was caught in different ways. For example, tribes set up eel camps to catch them using spears, traps, nets, hook and line, and various other methods of fishing.

During that time, eel was roasted, smoked and dried before eating. The Micmac prepared it by roasting and smoking it on poles made of rock maple for flavor, and usually salted and dried it before placing it in an oven to dry after splitting.

The Penobscot, as another example, salted and dried the flesh, skinned it, split it open, removed the backbones, salted the remaining carcass and hung it on dead branches to sun dry for two days. Then they hung it in a tent to smoke. Indigenous tribes also ate it like soup.

To conclude, eel is eaten throughout the United States and can be cooked in just about any way you can think of. From grilled and smoked to fried and jellied, the possibilities of transforming an eel into a tase dish are endless.

The unique taste and texture can only be truly understood if you decide to try it for yourself. So, what are you waiting for? Take a leap and order the eel next time at your favorite restaurant. You might be surprised at what you find out about your taste buds.

Ways to Prepare American Eel

Before you can do anything with a live eel that you have caught or purchase, you will have to kill it. The best and safest way to kill an eel is to put it into a large container and sprinkle it with salt.

Don’t go easy on the salt, you will actually want to sprinkle it generously over the body. The eel will be killed in two hours and most of the slime from the scales will be gone too. This process is so simple because the eel’s layer of slime on its body protects it and when the salt absorbs the slime, the eel can no longer survive.

The next step to preparing the eel is to skin it. 

The easiest way is to tie a cord or a rope around the eel, right behind the head and gills, and then cut just through the skin all the way around the eel behind the rope.

Using pliers or something to hold the skin with, you can then pull the skin off all the way down to the tail. This has been identified as one of the most simple processes, but there are many other ways to do it.

Alternatively, you can use the back of a knife to manually scrape the scales off until the entire fish is clean. This method can be tricky and time consuming, however. In order to effectively skin an eel, you might have to get creative.

After the eel is killed and skinned, you’ll want to gut it and wash it. Now that you’ve done all the dirty work, the time has come to cook it. There are a few ways you can do this.

Some common ways to prepare your eel:

  • Smoked
  • Jellied
  • Grilled
  • Fried
  • Baked
  • Eel sushi

Smoking is probably the most popular way to cook an eel, and you can leave the skin on with this option. They are usually smoked while being hung vertically. You’ll usually want to smoke them for about 90 minutes and it is important not to make them too hot or the oil will burst out.

Originating in London, England, jellying is another popular preparation method for eel. After soaking it in salt water for five minutes and rinsing it, you’ll want to place it in a saucepan and add vinegar, sliced onion, peppercorns, bay leaves, salt, and water then it bring to a boil over high heat. Jellied eel is usually served cold.

When grilling eel, as with any type of meat, you’ll want to place your eel on the grill until it is cooked thoroughly adding any spices or sauces that are desired. Grilled eel, or Unagi, is a popular Japanese dish.

Alternatively, any type of eel can be fried just like chicken. In order to achieve this, the cleaned and prepared eel meat will need to be coated with some kind of breading and placed in hot oil until it cooks all the way through. The end result will yield a crispy golden brown chunk of eel.

Related Questions

Is there anything to be avoided while smoking eel?

When brining your eel, make sure it is not too salty or you’re going to end up with a super salty, and probably unpleasant, tasting eel after all of that time it takes to smoke it. After you finish brining, the eel, throw the brine away, it is not something you want to use again. If you plan on making a new batch right afterward, make an entirely new brine.

What is the shelf life of a smoked eel?

Smoked eel is known to last longer than most other smoked proteins. If you are going to leave it in a regular container, it will stay good for three to four days at a chill temperature. However, if you really want to keep it for a long time, it can stay for about four weeks if it is vacuum sealed and chilled, or up to 12 weeks frozen.

What is eel commonly eaten with?

Eel can be found on the menu at multiple restaurants all around the world, but is most commonly used with sushi in Chinese and Japanese cuisine. It can be smoked or grilled when used for this purpose, and is often served with eel sauce.

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