Jellied eels are a traditional English dish that originated in the 18th century, primarily in the East End of London. The dish consists of chopped eels boiled in a spiced stock that is allowed to cool and set, forming a jelly. It is eaten cold.
The eel was a cheap, nutritious and readily available food source for the people of London; European eels were once so common in the Thames that nets were set as far upriver as London itself, and eels became a staple for London's poor. The earliest known eel, pie and mash houses opened in London in the 18th century, and the oldest surviving shop, M Manze, has been open since 1902. At the end of the Second World War there were around a hundred eel, pie and mash houses in London; in 1995 there were eighty seven.
The water quality of the Thames has improved since the 1960s and is now suitable for recolonisation by eels. The Environment Agency supports a Thames fishery, allowing nets as far upriver as Tower Bridge;
The dish is traditionally prepared using the freshwater eels native to Britain. Typically, the eels are chopped (shucked) into rounds and boiled in water and vinegar, to make a fish stock, with nutmeg and lemon juice before being allowed to cool. The eel is a naturally gelatinous fish so the cooking process releases proteins, like collagen, into the liquid which solidify on cooling to form a jelly, though gelatin may be added in order to aid this process. Recipes for jellied eels are individual to particular London pie and mash shops, and also street sellers; however, traditional recipes for authentic Victorian jellied eels all have common ingredients and cooking methods. What alters is the choice of herbs and spices used to flavour the dish.
Outside the UK
Italy has a similar dish known simply as Anguilla (literally, eel), which is eaten with balsamic rather than chilli vinegar. In Denmark the dish is known as ål i gele, in France as aspic d'anguille, and in Germany as Aal in Aspik; all terms mean jellied eel.
The Basque Country is famous for a wormlike dish known as txitxardin in Basque, or angulas in Spanish. These are baby eels, or elvers, which are usually prepared in olive oil, garlic, and peppers.
Jellied eels in popular culture
In 2012 game Dishonored, a product called "Pratchett Jellied Eels" appears as a food staple in the game's 19th centuresque fictional universe.
Jack Johnson, an early 20th century black boxing heavyweight champion, notoriously defied taboos by consorting with white women, among other behaviors. "Asked the secret of his staying power by a reporter who had watched a succession of women parade into, and out of, the champion's hotel room, Johnson supposedly said, 'Eat jellied eels and think distant thoughts'"
- Donald Strachan (8 Aug 2012). Frommer's London 2013. John Wiley & Sons. p. 244.
- Copping, Jasper (2007-06-18). "Eels in danger of slipping off the menu". The Telegraph (Telegraph Media Group Ltd). Retrieved 2008-12-11.
- Richard Schweid (2010). Consider the Eel. Univ of North Carolina Press. p. 94.
- Naismith, I. A.; B. Knights (2005-04-04). "The distribution, density and growth of the European eel, Anguilla anguilla, in the freshwater catchment of the River Thames". Journal of Fish Biology 42 (2): 217–226. doi:10.1111/j.1095-8649.1993.tb00323.x. Retrieved 2008-12-11.
- "Commercial Fisheries in the Thames Estuary". ThamesWEB. ThamesWEB.com. Archived from the original on 2006-11-27. Retrieved 2008-12-11.
- Mark Kurlansky (2000). The Basque History of the World. Vintage Books. ISBN 9780099284130.
- http://www.bbc.co.uk/dna/h2g2/A8573132 Background
- http://www.guardian.co.uk/netnotes/article/0,6729,680948,00.html Jellied eels story at The Guardian, 8 April 2002
- Would you Adam and Eve it? Jellied eels hit by over-fishing London Evening Standard, 3 January 2012.
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- http://www.pie-and-mash.com Website dedicated to an appreciation of Pie, Mash and Eels.
- http://www.barneys-seafood.co.uk The website of Barneys Seafood with links to their eels and stories about Eastend food culture and social history.
- Jellied Eel is also the name of the quarterly magazine of London Food Link , the network for food businesses, writers and campaigners promoting healthy and sustainable food in London (UK on the website of Sustain: The alliance for better food and farming