Grilled eel rice bowl

Asian cooks can make something good out of eel, as with this grilled eel rice bowl. 

If you live in Northern Italy, it’s pretty easy to find eel around Christmas time. It’s not so easy If you’re an Italian living in the states. When I was a little kid, my mother used to tell me that her family made eel on Christmas Eve; then she’d shudder and make a face. By the time I was born, that generation of immigrants, the ones who weathered the Great Depression and could boil a shoe for dinner if they had to, had evolved into baby boomers who found the concept of eating eel gross. As for me, I always remember that scene where Lou Gossett Junior gets his head bitten off by a giant eel at the end of The Deep—you don’t eat eels; they eat you! But then I started thinking, well I’m an adult now...sort of. Maybe I would like eel. 

My father had one job on the days leading up to Christmas Eve: purchase the seafood for our family’s Feast of the Seven Fishes dinner. Unfortunately, we never saw seven fishes at any of those dinners mostly due to “budgetary concerns,” i.e., my father being a cheapskate. Instead, we celebrated Feast of the Three  Fishes: whole belly clams, lobster, and shrimp, combined with linguine. It was a hit every year, and my father would stuff his face to make up for the monetary setback.

Over the years, I’ve picked up the family torch for Christmas Eve dinner. I make the same pasta with the same three fishes, but one year I thought, “maybe I will  try that eel. Why not?” The real question: where to find it? I knew Wegmans certainly wouldn’t have it; even most fish mongers in the city don’t carry it. It occurred to me that it’s often used for sushi, so some Asian markets might have it. I did a little research and found a market out on Niagara Falls Boulevard, tucked away in the far corner of a plaza dominated by a Home Depot.

I have to say, the place was pretty amazing. I felt like I was suddenly dropped into a market in Guangzhou, China. Spread out before me were aisle after aisle of Chinese products and foods, so visually overwhelming I almost had vertigo. The frozen fish section seemed to expand endlessly—a veritable “who’s who” of fish—but I was hoping, however, to get the eel fresh if I could. 

Watch what you wish for. A few steps away stood a murky fish tank packed with black, squirming eels, spooling around each other like alien DNA. It was frightening. I panicked. I had flashes of Lou Gossett Junior in the tank. “I can’t get one of these,” I thought. “I don’t even know how to carry it home. How do I kill it? Chop off its head while it’s writhing on my countertop?” 

I played it cool, and casually walked away without fainting, back to the freezers, where it was safe. And wouldn’t you know it? Right where I stopped, I found the frozen eel, all cut up and ready to go. I could breathe easy.

Man, this thing stinks. It has been thawing most of the day in my sink. I love stinky fish but this thing smells like a sweltering hot Sunday in London during the Black Plague.

I looked up how to prepare eel the Italian way, which suggested I split it down the middle and sear it on high heat, skin down, until crispy. From there, it was easy enough. I let it cool slightly and spread it out on a board to make sure the spine bone was completely gone before placing a garlic clove and sprig of rosemary in the middle. I folded it over and tossed it in the oven.

To be honest, I was not looking forward to eating this. I almost canceled the whole idea but when it came out of the oven, it looked rather succulent. Yeah, right. It was bad. Bad like “asking a chubby lady when her baby is due” bad. I took two bites before rising from my seat and ceremoniously shrouding the debacle in Brawny paper towels and tossing it out. Yup, not a fan of eel. Well, at least this eel. I know there are different kinds, and I guess I could do more research, but for now I’ll stick with good old Mom’s recipe of linguine with sauteed whole belly clams, lobster, and shrimp.

It seems remiss to leave out the Armenian half of my holidays, but I don’t remember any specific foods being served. Besides, Armenians don’t even celebrate until January 6. Plus, my father, the Armenian, never really cooked other than grilling shish kabob in the summers. His mother Helen did; she was excellent, but unpredictable. I remember one night our phone rang at two in the morning with her telling us, “Come over, lunch is ready—and why is it so dark out?” She must’ve woken at midnight, gotten confused, and started making grape leaves. When my dad and I arrived, half asleep,  we were greeted by a huge spread of food. We sat and ate and laughed. Hey, maybe that could be my new Armenian Christmas tradition; cook a meal at two in the morning and randomly call family over to eat. 

The moral of the story: if you’re serving eel, have plenty of Brawny on hand.

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