It’s not well known but some famous dishes are a result of epiphanies, or moments of sudden revelation that lead to profundity.
Example: most people know about Julius Caesar. That he was a Roman Emperor, and that he was the first gynaecologist (the Caesarean), etc.
But not many know the salad that still bears his name, arose from an epiphany JC experienced around 54 BC.
He was striding angrily across the parade grounds to berate a recumbent Cicero when he stopped, transfixed: he’d just spotted a hen gazing at some lettuce and a tomato.
A lesser, more superstitious man – “something fowl this way comes” – might have screamed for salt to toss over his left shoulder. A religious man – “lettuce pray” – might have been moved to piety.
Not JC, he immediately grasped the significance implicit in a Chicken Sees A Salad.
Some additions later – cheese, fruit and capers – and a now-awake Cicero recorded history’s first Caesar salad.
Similarly, when Emperor Sujin occupied the Chrysanthemum Throne, eels were a menace. There were simply too many of the yucky pests around. It was, to be sure, an eel wind that made no one eel-ated.
“Will no one rid me of this troublesome beast?” mused the Emperor. It was a question that had some relevance in 16th Century England but More of that later.
Surrounded by mirin, sake, sugar and soy sauce in his kitchen, the failed chef Matsumo Unagi was smoking a moody cigarette and contemplating suicide when a moray eel suddenly flopped out of the pond behind him.
A weaker man might have swigged the wine, the better to calm his nerves. A vengeful man would have stabbed the beast in rage.
But Matsumo was made of sterner stuff so he did both. He sipped the wine and sliced and diced the creature. In mounting rage, he then grilled it to perfection in a concentrated marinade of the spirits, sugar and soy sauce.
The resulting transcendence pleased Emperor Sujin no end and the chef was declared a National Treasure before lending his name to a dish forever synonymous with Dean Martin’s version of love (“That’s Amore”).
Unfortunately, it’s become a victim of its own success: eels are fast diminishing in Asia.
Enter desperate remedies.
Dutch border police arrested three Malaysians Thursday for attempting to smuggle thousands of baby eels through Amsterdam’s Schiphol airport.
The police got suspicious after the rocket scientists tried to take eight large suitcases through airport security. No one, it seems, told them anything about X-ray scanners,
“Inside the cases were bags with water and baby eels,” the Dutch food and goods watchdog said. Indeed, the inspectors discovered 105 kilograms of glass eels. That’s around 300,000 eels, enough unagi to keep three score and ten Japanese restaurants busy for three days.
Maybe they were following set examples. Many a Malaysian leader had been found wallowing in corruption like a rhinoceros in an African pool so, mindful of precedent, the three may have simply tried Dutch rivers.
Over the last four decades, critically endangered European eel populations have been devastated, falling by as much as 99% in some areas, according to EU figures.
Young transparent eels, known as “glass eels,” are particularly prized in Asia, where they are fattened in farms before being sold at prices in excess of caviar’s.
It would have brought a tear to Matsumo’s eyes.
And, on that note, Happy Easter everyone.