Growing demand for New Zealand eel by US consumers has helped increase exports of the fish, particularly to New York according to new figures.
Statistics New Zealand export figures for the industry show sales of eel to North America grew by 115 percent last year.
Award winning US restaurateur and executive chef for Hawaiian Airlines, Chai Chaowasaree, says while the freshwater fish is not yet a common menu item throughout the country, increasingly eel is found in a more diverse range of restaurants.
“Historically eel or ‘unagi’ has long been a staple in Asian and particularly, Japanese sushi restaurants across North America however now we are seeing it incorporated into other styles of cuisine,” he says.
Chaowasaree says eel in the US is usually smoked, grilled, or stewed; however his favourite recipe is more traditional.
“I like it grilled, topped with Kabayaki Sauce, and served over sushi rice,” says Chaowasaree.
He says eel can taste muddy so the smoky and sweet flavours of the Kabayaki sauce helps to mellow the taste.
Brad Matheny, senior director of Hawaiian Airlines cargo division which helps New Zealand exporters deliver thousands of live eels to New York each year says the carrier’s own figures show impressive growth for the niche export.
“The second half of 2016 was particularly strong for Kiwi eel exporters, our figures show eel shipments from New Zealand were up more than 2600 percent on the same period in the year prior - with all of this product delivered to NYC,” he says.
Matheny says offering the fastest widebody service between Auckland and JFK airports has helped Kiwi exporters provide a high quality product to their consumers in New York.
“New Zealand freshwater eels need to be kept at a specific temperature and have a limited shelf life.
“By reducing transit time, we have increased the speed at which we can bring the goods to market and ultimately improving the freshness of the product on arrival,” he says.
More than $584,000 worth of NZ eel was shipped to US wholesalers last year - up from $271,000 in the previous year.
The growth trend for US demand for eel is much higher than the rest of the world which showed a 39% decline in sales in the previous year. North America now takes almost a third of all New Zealand live eel exports - this is up from less than ten percent in the previous year.