by Davis Apiti
Eels (tuna) have been a regular source of food for us. They still inhabit the fresh water streams in Aotea and have always been a delicacy and highly sought after. These days they are not as plentiful or as large as they have been in the past. Historically the eels used to be in abundance because local Maori would place a rahui on this food source. This meant that the eel could only be caught at certain times of the year to ensure they were replenished and grew to a healthy size. The eel shown in these photos was caught recently in Aotea. In today’s terms it would be considered a good-sized eel.
Remove the head and cut carefully along the backbone of the eel.
Repeat cutting along the length backbone leaving as much soft flesh as possible.
Continue Step 2 until one side of the flesh has folded out completely and the entrails (guts) are visible. Repeat on the opposite side of the backbone.
Remove the entrails from the eel and discard (makes great compost).
Peel away the backbone. Don’t throw this away – keep it to smoke as this is edible and often a favourite. Wash the eel thoroughly with water.
Sprinkle the eel with salt (or any other flavourings you desire) and rub it into the flesh with your fingers to ensure even coverage.
Cut across the width of the eel into desired sizes.
Prepare smokehouse by cutting manuka (the best wood to use) into kindling and by stripping the bark off to help start the fire. Using newspaper will also help start the fire. Pile these up until there are four layers criss-crossing one another (for better fire circulation). After lighting let it burn for 4-5 minutes before putting the eel onto the racks.
Place the eel slices and backbone onto the racks and close the door of the smokehouse to allow the eel to cook. Check every ½ hour by touching the outside of the smoke house with the palm of your hand. The heat should be just bearable. This is a good gauge to use for this smoke house. If it is too cool add more wood to keep it at a constant temperature. The eel should be cooked in approximately two hours.
(Optional – towards the end of smoking add two handfuls of manuka sawdust to the fire to help brown off the eel. It will give the eel a good sheen and texture.)
Sawdust was used to help brown off this eel. The eel should look similar to this and the flesh should peel off very easily. Take care when eating because there may be bones remaining in the eel.