If you’re unfamiliar with water animals, you will probably mistake eels for snakes. I’m not going to lie; at first, I found this slimy, elongated creature with big round eyes to be quite terrifying. As I knew people kept eels as pets in their aquarium, I was shocked to find out that not only do people eat this fish, but they genuinely enjoy it as well.
To my surprise, it turns out eels are actually good. They are used worldwide to make many popular dishes. Different types of eels are used in different kinds of dishes. Eels are also widely eaten in Japan, China, Europe, the United States, Spain, etc. Eels are loved so much that they are now listed as “critically endangered” under the IUCN Red List, partly due to excessive fishing.
Beware, though. Eel blood is hazardous to both other species and us humans. If consumed, even in very small amounts, it is enough to kill. That is why you should never eat raw eel. Luckily, while cooking, the poisonous eel blood is boiled away.
So, if you’ve never had eel, or perhaps you ran away at its mere sight, you might be wondering what eel meat tastes like. Fortunately, it tastes much better than it looks. Though it depends on how it is made, eel generally has a sweet taste with a slight hint of fishiness.
Let’s dive into knowing more about this eel creature. Maybe we can teach people not to judge a book by its cover, or, in this case, not to judge the taste of food by its looks.
What Does Eel Taste Like?
For those who have never tasted eel, the common misconception might be that it tastes the same as it looks – not good. However, the actual taste of eel might surprise you.
The simple answer is that eel tastes good and has a high price tag to prove it. The most common description of its taste is that it is light and sweet. This meat doesn’t offer a very fishy aftertaste, a characteristic I appreciate greatly.
Some might argue that eels taste rather bland, but their exact taste really depends on how they are cooked. One thing I like about eel is that it highly absorbs sauces and seasoning added to it.
Freshwater vs. Saltwater Eel Taste
There are different types of eels. The main two are freshwater, or unagi, and saltwater, or anago, eels.
As the name implies, freshwater eels generally live in freshwater ecosystems, such as rivers or ponds. For breeding, though, these eels do migrate back to saltwater. Saltwater eels live in saltwater all the time.
Freshwater and saltwater eels vary in their flavor, texture, and nutritional components. The most commonly found in sushi restaurants is freshwater eel, making it more well known to most people.
Freshwater eels have a rich and bold flavor. When they are correctly cooked, freshwater eels have a sweet taste. On the other hand, saltwater eels are leaner than freshwater. Thus, the taste is blander and less pronounced. The reason for the richer taste of freshwater eel is due to its high-fat content. It has twice the amount of fat of saltwater eel.
The fishy flavor in both freshwater and saltwater eels is mild and not too overwhelming. However, freshwater eels have a lighter fishy taste than saltwater eels. So, in general, both types of eels taste lovely and sweet.
What Does Jellied Eel Taste Like?
Jellied eel dates back to the 18th century. Back then, this dish was a cheap and easy Cockney street food item.
To achieve jellied eels, the eels are first chopped and boiled with herbs for about half an hour. They’re then left to cool. This cooling allows the fish to produce their own gelatin, with a soft and transparent jelly appearing on the cut eel.
The taste of jellied eels is unique. It is mild and quite salty, similar to pickled herring. However, it does not have a fishy taste to it. Jellied eel definitely has an acquired taste. To further accommodate the flavor of jellied eel, it is usually accompanied by white pepper and vinegar.
This dish is served cold and eaten in several countries such as France, Denmark, Poland, and Germany. The name of the dish differs from country to country, but they all translate back to jellied eels.
What Does Smoked Eel Taste Like?
Similar to how fried chicken tastes different from broiled chicken, smoked eel tastes different from jellied eels.
Smoked eels can be made right in your backyard. First, the weird-looking fish are cleaned and then brined in brine. Next, they are rinsed with water, put on a stick inserted from the stomach cavity, and left to dry. Finally, they are hot smoked at about 140° F (60° C) or higher.
Smoked eel is a famous and easy-to-make dish that is widespread globally. Smoking allows eel to taste better. The taste, of course, depends on how good the cook is.
The taste of smoked eel is similar to other kinds of smoked fish; it tastes good. This sought-after dish has a strong but subtle smoked flavor. Its great taste is due to many things, one of them being that eels are classified as oily fish. Oily fish are tastier than their counterparts, especially when they are smoked.
The taste of smoked eel is a popular delicacy in many areas like northern Germany, Denmark, and the Netherlands.
What Does Eel Smell Like?
When I was younger, I would always refuse to walk past the fresh fish aisle in the supermarket. For me, smell is just horrendous!
I thought eel would smell exactly like that. However, I later found out that eels don’t have a very potent fishy smell.
If you want to remove any fishy smell, you can fry or grill them before processing.
What’s the Texture of Eel Like?
Trying eel for the first time will surely be a thrilling experience. Besides getting over its looks, you’re going to have to get over its texture.
The texture of eels is what usually throws people off. But, for those seafood lovers out there, the texture might not be an issue.
Similar to the taste, the texture of eel meat depends on how it is cooked. For example, grilled eel has a crispy texture, while boiling gives a soft texture. However, the way you’ve cooked eel is not the only factor that affects its texture. The other determinant is the kind of eel that is used.
In general, eel meat is soft yet firm. This firmness gives it a bit of a chewy texture. This chewy texture is usually the ‘make or break’ to liking eel. The texture of eel is typically compared to that of squid meat.
As mentioned earlier, different kinds of eels have different textures. Saltwater eel have tougher meat and thicker skin than freshwater eel, yet the saltwater eel have a chewier and softer texture. Freshwater eels have a soft to medium-firm delicate and flaky texture.
As for jellied eels, their texture is quite different than the flaky and firm texture of other preparations of eel. Jellied eel has a slippery texture, and it needs some time to get used to it. On the other hand, smoked eels have a firm and meaty texture.
What Tastes Similar to Eel?
The taste of eel is similar to the taste of many other foods you might eat. For example, many people say that it tastes almost like raw salmon, but the texture is different. Some closely compare it to the taste of catfish.
Other people claim that eel tastes very similar to squid in that they both have a light taste but a specific odor and flavor particular to them.
Lobster is sometimes described as having a similar, rich taste to eels. Its slight toughness also resembles that of freshwater eels. Other shellfish that taste similar to eel are crab and scallops because they also have some sweetness.
People who don’t eat a lot of seafood have compared the eel’s sweetness to that of chicken. People who have experienced exotic foods have compared the taste of eel to the taste of frogs and snakes.
With all these descriptions, maybe minus the snake one, it is easy to agree that eels are delicious. It sure seems worth it to taste them and see what description fits best.
Health Benefits of Eating Eel
Like many other types of fish, eels can be very healthy. They are a great source of protein and omega-3 fatty acids, which are nutrients that aid in building and maintaining a healthy body. Eels also contain a good amount of vitamins and minerals.
According to the USDA, 3.5 oz or 100g of cooked eel has 236 kcal, 23.7 g of protein, 15.0 g of total lipid (fat), 0 g of carbohydrate, and 0 g of sugar. They are good sources of vitamins A (126% DV), B12 (120% DV), D (53% DV), and E (34% DV). In addition, eels contain a good amount of minerals, such as calcium, magnesium, iron, potassium, selenium, manganese, and zinc. Freshwater eels tend to be fattier than saltwater eels. Thus, freshwater eels have a higher number of vitamins in minerals.
The way the eel is cooked affects its nutritional components. For example, grilling the eel removes fat from under the skin, giving a soft yet chewy texture.
The health benefits of eel come from what they contain and don’t contain. These health benefits include improving skin, strengthening bone, protecting the heart, improving blood condition, enhancing the digestive system, and boosting the function of the eye.
How to Serve Eel
Like other water species, eels are eaten in a variety of ways and are consumed worldwide.
Eel is an integral part of Japanese cuisine. Kabayaki is a popular dish made from grilled eel marinated or brushed with a soy sauce-based mixture. Other dishes include shiroyaki and unadon. Unadon usually contains kabayaki style cooked freshwater eel that is topped on hot rice. If you eat sushi, you’re also probably aware of a popular eel dish, known as unagi.
In Spain and other parts of Europe, young eels are used to make a dish called angula. A serving of this meal costs around 100$!
In England, eels are consumed as jellied eels, and in France, eels tend to be broiled, baked, smoked, or sautéed and served in upscale restaurants.