Words by Charlotte Janelle
At Ease with Eel
American Unagi pushes its fish onto more Maine tables
Seasoned aquaculturist and eel wrangler Sara Rademaker is doing everything womanly possible to make Mainers and their fellow Americans more comfortable with the prospect of eating Anguilla rostrata.
Rademaker owns American Unagi, a unique land-based American eel farm currently operating Hancock County. She taps Maine’s highly regulated elver fishery between March and June, when these baby glass eels migrate from their saltwater birthplace near Bermuda north into Maine’s freshwater rivers to mature. Rademaker and her crew grow eels year-round to market size (which can range from eight months to two years depending on the cook’s preference) in a series of recirculating well water tanks housed at the University of Maine’s Center for Cooperative Aquaculture Research in Franklin.
When she started farming eels in her basement in Thomaston in 2014 and subsequently moved to rented digs in UMaine’s Darling Marine Center in Walpole, Rademaker’s goal was to replace at least some of the 11 million pounds of farmed eel imported into the U.S. from around the world annually. Most imported eel comes from China and goes into sushi restaurants where consumers cannot be sure where it originated, how it was raised, or whether it was legally imported into the U.S.
With American Unagi, Rademaker is tapping into an existing market to offer a better-quality, local product. In fact, before she brought her eels to market, many chefs had taken the fish off their menus because imported eel was deemed unsustainable by seafood rating schemes like Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch. “When [chefs] found American Unagi, eel was then added back [on the menu],” Rademaker says. Seafood Watch has since rated American eels farmed in recirculating tanks as a good alternative to imported eels.
“We source our [baby] eels exclusively from Maine fishermen and … have complete control over growing conditions. We don’t use hormones or antibiotics,” says Rademaker. Celebrated Portland chef Masa Miyake, who serves Rademaker’s eels at both of his Japanese restaurants, has given American Unagi high marks. So has Fore Street’s Sam Hayward, the father of the farm-to-table movement in the state, who featured grilled unagi in a dish he prepared for a collaborative dinner hosted by Maine Farmland Trust in 2019. Chefs across the U.S. are finding unique ways to serve American Unagi. Jiho Kim, pastry chef at The Modern, a café housed inside the Museum of Modern Art in New York recently created a dish in which lightly battered American Unagi fillets sandwiched an oozy cheese filling.
Rademaker raises her eels in a state-of-the-art European aquaculture setup that is designed to cater to the well-being of her tens of thousands of fish. When edible MAINE visited on a gray day in January, she went ahead of the tour into the hothouse to turn on a few lights so the eels had time to adjust to the light and wouldn’t shy away from the camera.
There can be as many as 100,000 eels in a tank, depending in their size While many visitors get weak in the knees when they climb the portable steps to get a bird’s-eye view of tens of thousands of swimming eels, this high-density situation makes for happy eels because they are both tactile and communal. Rademaker describes them as “snuggly,” not at all scary—even if many humans liken them to snakes, second only to spiders as the living thing most feared by Americans. When she takes a large eel out to show us, she moves her arms in a hand-over-hand motion, like keeping a Slinky moving, because the fish wants to keep swimming forward even when it’s out of water.
Rademaker works hard to erase the misconception that eel, as a foodstuff, is slimy and oily with an overpowering fishy taste. She says her eel is delicate in texture and rich in flavor. Unagi is sort of a “starter sushi” for many American eaters, Rademaker argues; it’s almost always served cooked or smoked, but rarely raw, and it’s typically paired with a sweet sauce. A chef once described the flavor of American Unagi smoked eel to smoked kielbasa or bacon and its texture to tuna belly or wagyu beef. And because she knows she’s talking to a group that is enduring winter in a northerly climate, she mentions that eel is one of the best sources of vitamin D.
Rademaker sells live eels to chefs, for sure. But she’s worked hard to offer eel products for other customers, too. That’s because dispatching a live eel is not for the faint of heart. The process involves using a cloth to keep the eel steady while first chopping off its head. The eel will continue to move. The next cut runs the length of the eel to its stomach. Once open, you remove the innards with your thumb. After cleaning and gutting, as high as 80% of the fish is left to consume. Jonathan Fitts, a former sushi chef who works on Rademaker’s crew, created four unagi rolls from two fillets.
For home cooks, American Unagi offers fresh frozen eel butterflied fillets ($35), 4-ounce European-style smoked eel fillets that are ready to eat ($15), and an unagi kabayaki kit that includes all the fixings to make barbecue-style sushi rolls ($125). You can buy these products through the company’s website for shipment anywhere in the U.S. or pick them up locally at Jess’s Market in Rockland, Morse’s Sauerkraut in Waldoboro, Vessel and Vine in Brunswick, Harbor Fish Market in Portland, and SoPo Seafood in South Portland.
Rademaker is building a new purpose-built facility in Waldoboro. She’s excited to have a place of her own—a 27,000-square-foot building—where she can continue to work on increasing her neighbors’ comfort level with consuming eel.