Last New Year's Eve, while most of you were wearing silly hats and drinking too much Champagne, I was rama tuna. For those not fluent in Maori, that's eeling, or eel-baiting. The site was a wooded stream on the Canterbury Plains of New Zealand. To rama tuna, as any good Maori knows, you wait for nightfall, then light a crackling bonfire, and sit on a damp stream bank with rod in hand. And wait and wait and wait. The rod is no more than a stick with a hook on the end of a piece of string, from which you attach a piece of malodorous meat. The eels are supposedly attracted by the light and smell, and are hooked. I say supposedly, because we sat for hours and caught nothing. Frankly, I was rather thankful. I didn't want to be the one to kill them, gut them, and then turn them into some culinary marvel. We went home in the early hours of the New Year and had bacon and eggs, hot chocolate and brandy, which was far more welcome than any eel concoction I could have whipped up. In Hong Kong, getting hold of a decent freshwater eel is less of an adventure. All you have to do is to visit the wet market and select one from a trough filled with the slithering, squirming things. The fishmonger will gut, skin and debone the eel. But the process is not a pretty sight, and a quick promenade round the market while the deed is being performed is called for. Even so, eels tend to twitch disconcertingly for at least half an hour after their demise. Eels are covered in a thick coating of slime. Hence, I suppose, the term 'slippery as an eel'. What no cookbook ever tells you is that if you're cooking it with the skin, this slime needs to be removed first. This is easily done by blanching the eel and then scraping off the slime with the back of a knife. It is an off-putting chore, but eel is very good to eat. The flesh is delicate yet rich, with a slightly springy texture, and not in the least bit fishy. There are two types of freshwater eel available locally, one being the common eel, known in Cantonese as bahk seen or white eel. This is just to confuse you, for they are actually a dark grey. The other is the smaller, rice paddy eel or wong seen, which means yellow eel - these are a sort of muddy, brownish yellow. Both are now farmed and available all year round, although the rich dishes they produce are generally associated with winter. According to an old Chinese saying, eels are tender and delicate in spring, delicious during summer rice-planting, tough in autumn and fat in winter. But the fishmongers I spoke to say there is no longer a discernible seasonal difference. The Shanghainese are famous preparers of eels, especially the rice paddy eels. Kan Fu-chuen, senior executive chef for northern Chinese food at the Maxim's group, gave me a lesson in eel cookery in the kitchen of the Shanghai Garden in Hutchison House. A huge bucket of eels, which put me in mind of Medusa on a bad hair day, awaited us. Thankfully, these had been killed earlier. Kan showed how, with three deft strokes, the eel was drawn into four sections: two fat back fillets, the bottom stomach section, and the bone column, which is discarded. The back fillets, especially the section towards the tail end, are the most sought after, and it was these he reserved for his classic dish of saute eels with ginger and garlic (chow seen woo). It was wonderful to watch Kan at work. He deftly wielded his wok over the roaring flames, scooping up a smidgen of seasoning here and there with his huge ladle, all the time tossing, never letting the momentum drop. Not a bead of perspiration appeared, not even a rosy flush. Kan was super-cool. It took him about three minutes to cook the dish - about as long as it takes to boil an egg. The final touch, after dishing the eel on to a plate, was a splash of boiling oil and sizzling garlic. The result was delicious - sliced eel in a rich, garlicky and slightly sweet sauce. They are also big eel fans in Japan, where there are restaurants solely devoted to their preparation and consumption. The Japanese have one of the most exquisite ways of cooking eel or unagi. Fillets are marinated in a sweet soya and mirin dressing and then grilled and served with rice. Here, it's probably easiest to buy prepared eels from Japanese food halls. Europeans, too, have their traditional eel dishes. The Danes are said to prepare the best smoked eel. The French and Belgians have their angilles au vert, eel simmered with sorrel and other green herbs. In the Loire Valley, I have eaten the most delicious eel matelotes or stews, which are cooked with either red or white wine. Jellied eel is a Cockney favourite, but today it has become something of a curiosity - one of those dishes on the edge of extinction. Eels were a cheap and plentiful food until pollution and over-fishing took their toll. In 18th-century England, the eel pies sold from a small inn on an island in the Thames became so famous the island became known as Eel Pie School. Sadly, the inn has gone but old English cookbooks often include recipes for the pie. I have always wanted to try the Spanish dish of angulas or baby eels. The angulas are tossed into a shallow earthenware casserole of very hot olive oil, garlic and one or two slices of chilli. You eat the angulas by twirling them round a thick, wooden fork (they slide off a metal one) which is dabbed on a piece of bread to keep the oil from dribbling down your chin. The angulas and bread are then enjoyed together. I look forward to sampling this in a Spanish tapas bar some day. This New Year, though, we were again eeling in New Zealand and we even caught one - big, fat and mean it was too. It was marinated in soya sauce, sugar, ginger and barbecued. Yum.