Jellied eels is a street food, best eaten in and around the London market stalls of the East End and in the famous ‘pie and mash’ shops. However, if you want to make it and serve it at home, which was regularly done in Victorian times, then this is an authentic recipe, and as close to the perfect jellied eels as you are going to get – although recipes do vary, with no two pie and mash shops serving the exact same recipe, having closely guarded their secrets for over one hundred years.
Jellied eels have been made to be sold in shops and stalls since the late 1700s (while eel itself has been eaten continuously in different forms since pre-history). The cooked eel became incredibly popular as a ready supply and source of cheap and nutritious food, living as it did in great numbers in many British rivers, and particularly in the River Thames, which winds its way through London’s East End, the spiritual home of the jellied eel.
Jellied Eel and Eel Pie, both served with ‘mash’ and ‘liquer’, have been a very popular and traditional dish served and eaten by Londoners for over 200 years. The first ‘Eel Pie & Mash Houses’ opened in London in the eighteenth century, and the oldest surviving shop called M. Manze, in Pekham, has been open for business since 1891. This particular recipe comes from a book of local recipes published in 1962, but this traditional recipe was passed down in a London East End family from the Victorian age (1860) and we have translated it for the modern kitchen.
Jellied Eels Recipe
The dish of jellied eels is traditionally prepared using the freshwater silver eels, native to Britain, and once found in large numbers in the River Thames. It is served with a wedge of lemon and some chilli vinegar. It is best to go to your local fishmonger and order the eels you need in advance, so that you can get exactly what you want, on the day you need it, freshly caught.
We are not using modern gelatin to set the jellied eels ‘hard’ traditionally the gelatinous eels would produce enough natural gelatin to help the stock set to a soft jelly when cooled, which is a much more pleasing way to eat the eels and is more authentic.
- 1kg of eels (local caught ‘silver eels’ if possible)
- 1 large onion (peeled and chopped)
- 1 bay leaf
- 2 tbsp of vinegar (white wine vinegar or white pickling vinegar)
- 1/2 lemon (juice only)
- 1 large sprig of parsley
- 700ml of water (bottled, still spring water)
- 2 eggs, (shell and whites only)
- 3 whole black pepper corns (crushed)
- 1/2 tsp of sea salt
- 1/2 tsp of cayenne pepper
- 1/4 tsp grated nutmeg
- lemon wedge to serve
- Chilli vinegar (a few drops)
Ask your fishmonger (or do it yourself) to clean, gut, remove the heads and skin your eels, but leaving them whole. Place them into a saucepan with the water and all the ingredients, except the eggs. Wash the eggs clean in warm water, break the eggs and separate the yolk from the whites. Crush the egg shells and sprinkle them into the saucepan with the other ingredients.
Bring the saucepan up to the boil, then turn down to a simmer until the eel is cooked and tender, about 15 minutes. Remove the eels and leave somewhere to cool. Continue to let the water and other ingredients simmer to make a stock and reduce it by over half.
When cool enough to touch cut the eels into ’rounds’ (chunks about 2cm) and remove the bones. Whisk the egg whites to a froth. Strain the stock/water from the saucepan through a fine sieve to remove all the ingredients. Put the strained stock back on to a simmer and continue to reduce the liquid, when it has reduced by a further quarter whisk in the egg whites. Bring to the boil and then simmer for 2 minutes. Strain once more to remove any impurities and then leave to cool.
In small ramekins or glass bowls add some pieces of cooked eel and then pour over some of the cooled stock. Place in the fridge to set the jelly ‘soft’.
Chilli vinegar can be made very easily. Into a small plastic container pour 2 tbsp of white wine vinegar or white pickling vinegar, stir in 1/2 tsp of ground cayenne pepper and add three green chillies, (de-seeded) chopped into strips. Put the lid on it, give it a shake and store in the fridge for two days, use as and when you need it, give it a shake first, it will last for several months. You don’t need much.
Serve cold with a lemon wedge and some chilli vinegar and eat with a cocktail stick.