A recent brief visit to London provided an opportunity to sample this traditional and most unusual food, the jellied eel. Once a staple part of the diets of Londoners, bought from street stalls and cooked into pies served in the East ends famous pie and mash shops. It now seems to be a rare sight as our modern palates longer appreciate the more squeamish of the nations traditional foods.
The preparing and cooking methods appears to be straightforward albeit skilled affair. The eels, after being killed, gutted and cleaned, are cut into short sections and boiled in water with some vinegar until the flesh and skin is starting to fall off the bone. Eels being naturally rich in collagen this process transforms the water into a gelatin rich stock which when cooled produces a thick jelly around the chunks of eel.
The tub of jellied eels pictured were purchased from Tubby Isaac’s Jellied Eel Stall, one of the last of its kind originating from the days when stalls selling such foods as made up staple part of the traditional diet of East end Londoners. Located on the corner of Goulston Street where it meets Aldgate High Street this stall sells a range of other traditional street food including oysters, cockles and whelks, although sadly I did not have time to try all of them on this visit. A more detailed history of Tubby Isaac’s can be found in this very interesting blog post on Spittlefields Life, which also happens to be the reason I found this opportunity to try Jellied ells.
The jellied eels themselves are served in a small pot with traditional seasonings of chilli vinegar, black pepper and salt for you add at your own discretion. The white chunks of eel with their glistening blue skins lying within the clear wobbling mass of jelly with the aroma of fish and vinegar certainly makes for an interesting experience as you contemplate the prospect of the meal ahead of you.
When it comes to actually eating these the experience is not easy to describe. There is a mild fishy flavour to the eels although this was not as strong as I might have expected, no more than many other white fish. Texture certainly takes the center stage when biting into the soft white flesh and fishy, vinegary and gooey jelly. Definitely a unique experience personally. After overcoming the initial surprise at the texture I managed to eat the whole pot and was beginning to quite enjoy the experience by the end. Care is required to chew around the hard white backbone in the center of this flesh, the bone then needs removing, a not an easy maneuver to perform elegantly when eating in public.
Regarding the nutrition of this dish the eels appear to be make quite a nutritious food being a good source of protein and a rather good source of vitamin A in the form of retinol, vitamin E and vitamin B12. They also contribute some long chain omega-3 fats and other micronutrients such as thiamin, niacin and zinc. This would have made eels a valuable source of nutrition for the people of London in previous generations at times when other fresh meat and fish were not available and eels were abundant in the Thames. The preparation of jellied eels also provided a useful methods of preservation in the days before refrigeration as once the jelly had cooled and set it would preserve the eels for a couple of days.
Overall I enjoyed my experience with jellied eels and glad that I had the opportunity to try such a unique and traditional English food.