Every few days our team will scour Shanghai’s dining scene for scrumptious dishes that’ll fill your belly without emptying your savings. Not to discriminate, we’ll search everywhere from bicycle carts to chic venues with twenty-course tasting menus, knowing that any spot could have the next Dish of the Day.
Ah summer, that time when Chinese and Japanese set aside their differences and share in enjoying the squiggly seasonal delicacy of eel: the former chowing on the braised yellow river variety intertwined with noodles or other pairings, and the latter enjoying their own freshwater species skewered and grilled. But while Shanghai is practically draped with yellow eel, edible versions of the Japanese counterpart are scarce (one of the better versions we’ve found is in the form of unagi chips….). If you want to go top-shelf, your best bet is either Karen Chen’s Unagi or Ibashou in the Hongqiao Japanese enclave.
Our here, standards for Japanese are higher than downtown proper, where freezer-bitten sushi lubed in glowstick-green “wasabi” that comes in a toothpaste tube is frequently foisted on expats hoping for ‘dollar store’ cultural immersion. You give a Japanese Hongqiao resident a stale piece of sashimi, they’re not coming back. Same applies to eel. You walk into Ibashou and are immediately greeted by a tank of sheeny live specimens. A great sign.
Let’s cut to the chase. Their craft is hitsumabushi, a multi-step Nagoya-style preparation harking back to the Edo period. The eel is fresh-killed, skewered, grilled, and lathered with sweet sauce, grilled again, sauced, and so on until crisp and copper-colored. Like with cooking a steak, it’s essential to know how high of a temperature you should use relative to the amount of fat. You also have to know when to turn the fish on the grill. Ibashou has perfected this.
The eating process also involves some rigmarole, which we outline in greater detail here. And not to sound like a hitsu-heretic, but the eel’s good enough to be eaten by itself. The brown planks of fish are spectacularly sweet and riddled with little vesicles of fat that burst and mingle with the sauce on your tongue. We tend to mix half of it with rice until the white grains are bronze with flavor. Even still, we find ourselves gobbling the eel off the top of the rice mound like a toddler scraping frosting off a cake. The ‘High-grade EEL on Rice’ set with rice, pickled veg, and dashi (kelp or bonito flake broth) clocks in at 185RMB (30RMB more than at Unagi) but this isn’t a dish you want cheap. It’s worth every mao.
Like a good snout-to-tail pork establishment, Ibashou wastes no part of the beast. The spines are ripped out during the butchering and fried until brittle and chip-like, and the livers are roasted and glazed in sugar, mirin, and sake – they taste like foie gras meets chicken hearts. Both are great accompaniments to the inevitable flights of Asahi you’ll be downing while waiting for the headliner to arrive.
[Image via img.4travel.jp]
Ibashou – 389 Guyang Lu, near Songyuan Lu (古羊路389号, 近宋园路). Tel: (0)21-5425-5768. Hours: 11:30am-2pm, 5-10:30pm daily. Closest metro stop: Songyuan Road, line 10.
26, Lane 3717 Hongmei Lu, near Yan’an Xi Lu (虹梅路3717弄26号, 近延安西路). Tel: (0)21-5422-4871. Hours: 11:30am-2pm, 5-10:30pm daily. Closest metro stop: Longxi Road, line 10.
Last time on Dish of the Day: Spicy noodle soup with fried pork cutlet @ Ding Te Le
See a complete list of our Dish of the Day series here.
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