Eel isn't the most pleasant dish to prepare, but its texture, taste and sheer versatility make it worth the effort
Text Susan Jung / Photography Jonathan Wong / Styling Nellie Ming Lee
I love eel, and often order it when I see it on the menu. I've eaten it everywhere from Michelin-starred restaurants in the most idyllic of settings, to humble roadside stalls, and have rarely met a preparation I dislike. It's not the easiest or most pleasant food to prepare, though. For one thing, an eel will move around long after it's been killed. For the first dish, have the seafood vendor cut the backbone in several places before bagging it up for you; for the second, ask him to fillet it for you. Also, the eel is a slimy creature and can easily slip out of your hands. The vendor will offer to skin it for you, which would make it easier to handle because the mucous-y slime is on the skin. But for these preparations, leave the skin on. If possible, buy the eel the day before you want to cook it and keep it in the coldest section of your refrigerator.
Steamed eel with chun pei, ginger, garlic and chillies (pictured)
Chun pei is dried, aged tangerine peel that's used for both savoury and sweet dishes. The older it is, the more expensive. One piece of chun pei is the skin from a whole tangerine.
600 grams fresh eel, killed and cleaned
Sea salt, as needed
1 piece of chun pei, soaked in warm water until soft and pliable
10-15 grams salted black beans, soaked in warm water for about 20 minutes
2-3 garlic cloves
3-4 large, thin slices of ginger, peeled
2 red bird's-eye chillies
15ml light soy sauce
10ml Chinese rice wine
15ml cooking oil
2-3 spring onions
A small handful of fresh coriander
Sprinkle salt liberally over the eel and rub it into the skin. Leave it for about 30 minutes, then use the back of a knife to scrape the skin to remove the mucous (this is an unpleasant task). If the eel still feels slimy, repeat the salting and scraping process. Rinse the eel then dry it with paper towels. Trim off and discard the fins. Cut the eel into 2cm-thick cross sections and lay them, cut-side up, in a wide, shallow bowl.
Cut the chun pei and ginger into very thin matchsticks. Drain the black beans and chop them roughly. Thinly slice the garlic and cut the chillies into rounds about 2mm thick. Scatter these ingredients over the eel. Mix the soy sauce with the rice wine and pour this over and around the eel. Place the bowl on a tiered steamer set over boiling water, cover with the lid and steam for 10 minutes, or until the eel is cooked through.
While the eel is steaming, slice the spring onions into fine julienne. Heat the oil until very hot.
Remove the eel from the steamer and top with the spring onion and coriander. Pour the oil over the aromatics to wilt them, then serve with steamed white rice. Take care when eating the eel because it has fine, soft bones.
Grilled eel with garlic scape and lemon pesto
Garlic scapes, the long, slender, curling flowering stem of the garlic plant, are in season now.
About 800 grams skin-on eel fillet
500 grams garlic scapes
A small handful of fresh parsley
30 grams walnuts
The finely grated zest of one lemon
About 250ml olive oil, plus extra for brushing on the eel
About 80ml freshly squeezed lemon juice
About 30 grams freshly grated parmesan cheese
Sea salt, as needed
Soak some wooden skewers in water for about 30 minutes, so they don't burn on the grill.
Make the pesto first, so the flavours have time to develop. Cut the garlic scapes into 2cm pieces and put them in the bowl of a food processor. Add the parsley, walnuts and lemon zest. With the motor running, add the olive oil in a steady stream through the feed tube, then add the lemon juice. Scrape the sides of the machine and continue to process until the mixture is finely chopped. If the pesto is too thick, add more olive oil. Stir in the cheese, then season to taste with salt. Add more lemon juice, if needed - the flavour should be sharp and garlicky, but balanced.
Lay the eel fillet skin side down on the cutting board. Run your fingers lightly along the eel flesh to check for small bones and, if there are any, pull them out (using sterilised needle-nose pliers). Turn the eel over on the cutting board and sprinkle salt liberally over the skin. Scrape the skin as in the first recipe and, if the eel is still slimy, repeat the process. Rinse the eel well then dry it with paper towels. Sprinkle salt over the flesh and skin, then brush both sides of the eel with olive oil. Cut the fillets into pieces about 12cm wide. Thread three wooden skewers width-wise through each piece, piercing the flesh but not the skin, placing them about 1.5cm from each end, with one in the middle (this helps to prevent the eel from curling as it cooks).
Place the eel skin-side down over the indirect heat of a covered grill and cook for about five minutes before turning the pieces over. Cook the eel for about five more minutes, or until tender. Turn the pieces over one more time, moving them to a hotter part of the grill, and cook them briefly in the uncovered grill to crisp up the skin. Remove the pieces from the grill and carefully remove the skewers. Spoon the pesto over the eel and serve.