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Midsummer Days of the Ox, Why Eat Eel?

Lanh lives in Japan with her Japanese husband. Today, she is enjoying lunch at a neighborhood coffee shop with her friend Rikako.

Midsummer Days of the Ox, Why Eat Eel?

Rikako

Lanh, you seem to be a bit out of sorts. Are you alright?

Lanh

It's this very hot weather we've been having lately. Because I was brought up in the cool highlands of Vietnam, I find the heat of a Japanese summer rather hard to take.

Rikako

When you feel like that, you need to eat something nutritious to prevent summer lethargy!

Lanh

I know what you mean. Are there any foods that you recommend?

Rikako

Now I think of it, the Midsummer Days of the Ox (Doyo no ushi no hi) are just around the corner. To overcome the summer heat, here in Japan we have a tradition whereby we eat eel on the Midsummer Days of the Ox. This is because eels contain the nutrition required to prevent summer lethargy. The Midsummer Days of the Ox this year are on July 22 and August 3.

Lanh

Doyo no…the day of the ox?

Rikako

Well, Doyo is a term that has been used since ancient times in Japan in context with calendars. It describes the period of time that falls before the end of a season. As such, there are Doyo that occur with all of the seasons; spring, summer, autumn and winter. The Days of the Ox are days on which the symbol of the ox falls, when calculated using the oriental zodiac. Thus, days on which both a Day of the Ox and Doyo fall are known as "the Midsummer Days of the Ox".

Lanh

That is rather confusing! So in addition to using a western calendar to calculate days, Japanese people also make use of the oriental calendar?

Rikako

No, that is not the case. The only time we are aware of such things is in relation to such special events.

Lanh finds it all rather mysterious and wonders why eel is eaten on those particular days.

Lanh

I understand that eel is good when feeling lethargic in summer. However, why is it eaten on the Midsummer Days of the Ox?

Rikako

There are a number of theories. One rather convincing one is that Gennai Hiraga made eating eel fashionable. He was a well-known inventor of the Edo Period, who was also interested in so-called "Dutch learning" (or western learning).

Lanh

How?

Rikako

When Hiraga wrote a poster that read, "Today is a Midsummer Day of the Ox," for an eel shop suffering poor sales, sales skyrocketed. By way of explanation, I should mention that there is folklore that states, if food starting with the letter ("u") is eaten upon Days of the Ox, those who consume it become impervious to illness (for example, food such as umeboshi (preserved plums), uri (melons), and udon (noodles)). Eel (or unagi in Japanese) matches this folklore. Since the actions of Hiraga, the idea of eating eel on the Midsummer Days of the Ox has taken root. The folklore I just told you about stretches back some 200 years or more.

Lanh

That's interesting folklore! Actually, my husband really likes eel. I think I will make an effort to eat eel on the Midsummer Days of the Ox.

Rikako

So you have eaten eel before?

Lanh

Yes, back in Vietnam there are some famous eel dishes. One way of cooking it is simmering the eel in a hot-sweet sauce and then serving it over rice gruel.

Rikako

That sounds delicious! I want to give it a try.

Lanh

Yes, you should really come and visit my hometown in Vietnam.