I didn’t realize until recently that anago (sea eel) is one of the “meibutsu” or famous regional foods of the Hiroshima area. It’s especially prominent around the area of Miyajima, and if you go to Miyajima-guchi where you catch the ferry to Miyajima Island, you’ll find several competing shops featuring anago-meshi (sea eel rice), which is the main local specialties. And the most celebrated restaurant is Ueno. Ueno looks like they’ve been around for at least a century. Being inside the old wooden building, it’s difficult to avoid feeling that you’re in for something very classic, made by experts who’ve been at it for generations.
I was on my way further south to Yamaguchi prefecture, so I made it a point to stop off in Miyajima-guchi on the local train to get an anago-meshi bento to eat on the train. Miyajima is a very popular tourist destination in Japan, and tends to be teeming with people during the holidays and most weekends during the warm months. Luckily for me, I was there on a weekday during an unusually cold spell for the area, which made for a quick and easy pit stop to pick up a snack for the train. I ordered the smallest anago-meshi bento at 1050yen.
While this anago-meshi is similar to una-ju or una-don that you find in unagi restaurants, it’s quite different in many ways. First, there is anago cooked into the rice, giving the rice a slightly darkened hue and a boost of seafood aroma and flavor. Then the anago is cooked fresh over charcoal, imparting a good smokiness. There’s no sauce doused over the anago or the rice, as you would find with unagi. There is a bit of a soy-based sauce to flavor the anago while it’s grilled, but nothing thereafter to interfere with the flavor of eel. It’s very simple, yet strikingly good with all the dimensions of anago flavors permeating the dish from the ground up. While I was experiencing this small epiphany on the train with a bento that had already cooled off, I’m sure the experience is improved eating it piping hot off the grill.
If you find yourself around Miyajima, this should be one of the first places you go.
Website about Ueno’s anago-meshi (Japanese only): http://www.anagomeshi.com/anasetumei.htm
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