What's The Difference Between Unagi And Anago?

If you've ever dined at a sushi bar in America, you have Noritoshi Kanai to thank for the delicious experience. As explained by the Michelin Guide, Kanai opened Kawafuku in Little Tokyo during the mid-1960s, which is largely considered to be the U.S.'s first bona fide sushi restaurant. Along with head chef Shigeo Saito, Kanai created a menu that combined fresh local catches with imported items from Japan's Tsukiji Market. Unlike other Japanese restaurants in America at the time, dishes were prepared at the counter in front of customers while they waited. The result was a traditional sushi experience that would only grow in reputation over the coming years.

In terms of popularity, Statista shares some truly impressive figures regarding the market size of sushi restaurants in the U.S. In 2021, sushi restaurants throughout the country earned a whopping $22.6 billion in sales, with figures expected to rise to $24.7 billion during 2022. In addition to tame yet tasty selections like California rolls and spicy tuna rolls, many establishments also provide more adventurous dishes to diners. Unagi and anago are two such preparations of a similar fish packed with flavor, albeit with some key differences to consider.

Freshwater and saltwater eels

According to Food in Japan, both unagi and anago are types of eels commonly used by sushi restaurants. The primary difference lies in their environment, as unagi live in fresh bodies of water, while anago is a saltwater species. In terms of taste and texture, unagi are generally thicker and fattier, which contributes to deeper, more robust flavors. On the other hand, anago has a subtly sweet taste and a much lighter texture. Unagi and anago are also quite different when it comes to their preparation methods.

As described by Japan-Guide.com, unagi are often grilled to play up the fattiness of their meat. While grilling, the eels are dressed in a sauce that features savory and sweet notes, which really brings out the fish's inherent flavors. Unagi nigiri is a common preparation, which combines a thin sliver of grilled eel with sushi rice. As for anago, Sushi Modern explains that they are commonly cooked in broth instead of grilled. Once the eels are cooked, the broth is reduced to create a sweet sauce called tsume, which is then brushed on the fish. Like unagi, anago is frequently served nigiri style. Both dishes are incredibly flavorful in unique ways, but one option is much better from an environmental perspective.

Why anago is the more ethical choice of eel

While unagi is adored by sushi lovers in the U.S., it's even more popular in Japan according to The Japan Times. Although it's associated with the traditional holiday Midsummer Day of the Ox and is considered a treat during the fall months, many people enjoy the dish all year long. Accordingly, overconsumption of unagi has led to an unfortunate situation for the Japanese eel. The International Union for Conservation of Nature added the fish to its endangered list in 2014 in an effort to protect the species. Consider that over 3,300 tons of eels were caught in 1961, as compared to the 65 tons caught in 2020. In addition to overfishing, the species' dwindling numbers can also be blamed on changes to its environment.

Conservationists demand greater awareness of the endangered status of Japanese eels, along with greater protection of the environments in which they thrive. There's also been a push to use anago, which is not endangered, in place of unagi. Despite differences in taste and texture, anago is the more sustainable choice and still offers an amazingly complex flavor profile (per The Houston Press).