Glass eels

In the NYT Sunday Review of 3/31/13, a piece by Akiko Busch (author of The Incidental Steward: Reflections on Citizen Science) on “Why I Count Glass Eels”, about

half-hour increments spent on spring afternoons at the Fall Kill, a tributary of the Hudson River. In addition to pondering the notions of changeability and continuity that watching a stream flow into a river tend to prompt, I was also counting and weighing glass eels, tiny transparent fish only two or three inches long that enter the tributaries of the river each spring.

Which is to say, I was practicing something called citizen science, loosely defined as scientific research in which amateurs help experts gather data.

Here’s a single glass eel:

To come: some more about citizen science, then a bit about the compound glass eel, a fair amount on eels, and eventually eels as food, especially in unagi sushi.

Busch continues:

Eels are tiny envoys from the realm of the inconceivable. Scientists have never been able to document their mating or birth in the North Atlantic’s Sargasso Sea, nor do they know what governs their voyage to the coast’s freshwaters. In recent years, their population in the Hudson has declined, possibly because of contaminants in the water, dams, overfishing, parasites, habitat loss, hydropower projects or some other yet unknown factor.

It is a change the Atlantic States Marines Fisheries Commission would very much like to understand. To help them do so, the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation Hudson River Estuary Program and the National Estuarine Research Reserve System have established a juvenile eel monitoring program, in which I participated in 2011 and will again this year.

On glass eel: This is a N1 + N2 compound with the semantics N2 LIKE N1 ‘a N2 resembling a N1’. So ‘an eel resembling glass’ (in that it’s transparent). Also in this pattern: glass ceiling, glass jaw, glass lizard, glass noodle (things that are like glass in several different ways). Compounds of this set typically do not have “compound stress”, with the primary accent on N1, but instead usually have the primary accent on N2, the way Adj + N phrases do (I say “usually”, because of cases like glassfish, which has primary accent on N1). Also with primary accent on N2, obligatorily or optionally, are compounds in the pattern N2 MADE OF N1, like glass eye (an eye-like object made of glass) and glass wool (a wool-like substance made of glass) — plus glass ceiling referring to a ceiling actually made of glass and glass fish, referring to a fish-like object (an ornament, say) made of glass.

On the creatures, from Wikipedia:

Glass eels typically refers to an intermediary stage in the eel’s complex life history between the leptocephalus [or larval] stage and the juvenile (elver) stage. Glass eels are defined as “all developmental stages from completion of leptocephalus metamorphosis until full pigmentation”. The term typically refers to a transparent glass eel of the family Anguillidae. These are the freshwater eels that spawn in the ocean, and then enter estuaries as glass eels and swim upstream to live in freshwater during their juvenile growth phase. As the glass eels enter freshwater they start to become pigmented and are typically referred to as elvers. The elvers grow larger and are referred to as yellow eels, which are the juvenile stage of eels before their reproductive maturation begins.

Glass eel above, then some elvers:

A yellow eel:

And finally, an adult American eel:

The adults are predators, with rows of sharp teeth. They can bite, but not nearly as viciously as the (marine) moray eels (aka morays).

On the American eel:

The American eel [Anguilla rostrata] is found along the Atlantic coast including Chesapeake Bay and the Hudson River and as far north as the St. Lawrence River region. Is also present in the river systems of the eastern Gulf of Mexico and in some areas further south. Like all anguillid eels, American eels hunt at night, and during the day it hides in mud, sand or gravel very close to shore, roughly 5 to 6 feet under. They feed on crustaceans, aquatic insects, small insects, and probably any aquatic organisms that they can find and eat.

American eels are economically important in various areas along the East Coast as bait for fishing for sport fishes such as the striped bass, or as a food fish in some areas. Their recruitment stage, the glass eel, are also caught and sold for use in aquaculture in a few areas, although this is now restricted in most areas. (link)

There’s an entertaining report on cooking yellow eels (with a recipe for Yellow Eel with Chives), here. And now that we’re in the food zone, it’s time for unagi. From Wikipedia:

Unagi is the Japanese word for freshwater eels, especially the Japanese eel, Anguilla japonica. Saltwater eels are known as anago in Japanese. Unagi are a common ingredient in Japanese cooking.

Unagi is served as part of unadon (sometimes spelled unagidon, especially in menus in Japanese restaurants in Western countries), a donburi dish with sliced eel served on a bed of rice. A kind of sweet biscuit called unagi pie made with powdered unagi also exists.

Unagi is high in protein, vitamin A, and calcium.

Specialist unagi restaurants are common in Japan, and commonly have signs showing the word unagi with hiragana う (transliterated u), which is the first letter of the word unagi. Lake Hamana in Hamamatsu city, Shizuoka prefecture is considered to be the home of the highest quality unagi; as a result, the lake is surrounded by many small restaurants specializing in various unagi dishes. Unagi is often eaten during the hot summers in Japan. There is even a special day for eating unagi, the midsummer day of the Ox (doyo no ushi no hi). [This last is a wonderful fact.]

Unakyu is a common expression used for sushi containing eel & cucumber.

Due to the health hazards of eating raw freshwater fish, eels are always cooked, and in Japanese food, are always served with teri sauce.

Unagi is a standard topping for nigirizushi (sushi rice with something on top). From a great many tempting photos available on the net, here’s one of Freshwater Eel Sushi at Yen Sushi & Sake Bar, Los Angeles:

Unagi can also be coarsely chopped and used as the filling in makizushi (a filling on sushi rice on nori, all rolled up and then cut into rounds). I’m very fond of it in both nigiri and maki form. Which brings me to a story about my man Jacques.

Many years ago, when J was a teenager, he spent summers with his mother’s family in France. One summer the family realized that J was of draftable age in France and (at least at the time) the fact that his mother was a French citizen meant that if he spent more than some number of days in the country he’d be subject to the draft. So his uncle Maurice took him out of the country for a while, driving north, eventually to Denmark, but stopping at interesting places along the way. One stop was at a famous eel restaurant in Belgium — it seems that there are several of these — and there J was traumatized by the array of tanks with live eels in them: big, sharp-toothed, ugly, nasty eels. The experience convinced him that he detested eel as a food.

Reel ahead many years, to when I introduce J to sushi, which he took to enthusiastically, except for some varieties (ika and uni, in particular) whose texture didn’t suit him. I saw no reason why he’d object to the texture of unagi, but I’d heard the story about the Belgian eel restaurant, so when I ordered for us (he left the ordering to me, though he’d often ask for favorites), I decided to avoid the word eel, and even  unagi (in case he found unagi translated as eel on a menu), and in a moment of inspiration hit on the name brownfish. It instantly became one of his favorites, in both nigiri and maki form.

(His mother thought this story was incredibly funny.)


7 Responses to “Glass eels”

  1. Robert Coren Says:

    Did you ever tell him that had eaten and enjoyed eels?

  2. the ridger Says:

    On the dvd of the Miyazaki film “Spirited Away” is a feature about the making of, and in it we see Miyazaki describing to his young animators how he wants the dragon to look when, injured, it falls down through the castle and lands on the floor. Like an eel, he says, you’ve all seen eels. No, they confess, they haven’t; they’ve never watched eels being killed in a restaurant. Theatrically he exclaims: “Japanese culture is doomed!”

  3. A five-pack | Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] For the masculinity / homoeroticism files: the bare-chested men, the machete, and of course the phallic eel (in bright red, not a typical eely color). On eels as fish and as food, see this posting. […]

  4. Gabriel Molotsky Says:

    You put an asian swamp eel for the yellow eel stage, which is a completely different species.

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