What are Angulas (Spanish Baby Eels)?

Angulas
Saragoldsmith/Wikimedia Commons

One of the great things about money is that if you have a lot of it, you can spend it on really expensive things. Like Spanish baby eels, called angulas, which cost about $500 per pound.

What are Angulas?

Angulas are baby eels, known as elvers in English, and they're a pale, 3-inch-long, worm-shaped seafood that happens to be a Basque delicacy. 

Angulas are the offspring of the common Atlantic eel, which are born in the Sargasso Sea, in the part of the Atlantic Ocean that roughly corresponds with the Bermuda Triangle. 

The baby eels drift eastward on the ocean currents, winding up in the freshwater estuaries of Spain some three years later, where fishermen scoop them up. Those that survive to adulthood live for 10 years before returning to the Sargasso Sea (the return journey takes five months) to spawn and die, and the cycle starts over again.

But angulas weren't always Spain's most expensive food. As with so many luxury foods, angulas started out as peasant fare. The high price is only a result of demand and scarcity brought on by overfishing. Today, angulas are dangerously close to extinction. 

How Are They Used?

Angulas a la bilbaína is a traditional Basque recipe, named after Bilbao, the city in Northern Spain where it originated. And it's a simple preparation. 

First, olive oil is heated in an earthenware dish, along with sliced garlic and red guindilla chile, which is a skinny chile pepper with medium heat. Once the oil is sizzling, the angulas are added and stirred (traditionally with a wooden utensil, because metal is thought to taint the mild flavor of the angulas) briefly before removing them from the heat and serving right away, seasoned with salt and pepper and perhaps a splash of white wine. 

It's often served tapas-style, as part of a multicourse meal. It's sometimes served with spaghetti.

What Do Angulas Taste Like?

If you're wondering what Spain's most expensive food tastes like, the answer, oddly enough, is: not much. The flavor itself is somewhere between mild to nonexistent, while the texture is similar to that of cooked spaghetti, with a slight crunch to it.

It's perhaps paradoxical, then, that the traditional method of preparing angulas in a spicy oil is guaranteed to thoroughly overpower the flavor of the angulas themselves. Especially given how much you're paying for the privilege.

A tin containing 1.7 ounces (50 grams) of angulas sells for $50 in 2020, or about a dollar per gram. A random sampling of recipes for preparing angulas call for, respectively, 600 grams, 150 grams, and 320 grams of angulas, with a single portion weighing in at anywhere from 50 to 75 grams. 

Thus, at a dollar per gram, you're looking at a significant outlay of money to purchase this ingredient, and it may well put it far out of reach for all but the most devoted, or perhaps the achingly curious.

Gulas: Imitation Angulas

Because of the scarcity, and the cost, of genuine angulas, an imitation product called "gulas" was introduced in the 1980s, and it's become quite popular. They're made of surimi, which is the same pollock-based fish paste that is used to make imitation crab

And instead of forming the paste into long sticks, its shaped into tiny worm shapes the exact length and thickness of genuine angulas. The difference is only apparent on close inspection, as the imitation product lacks the eyes of the genuine article. In terms of price, surimi costs about $4 per kilo, as compared with $1,100 per kilo for genuine angulas.

But again, the fact that the mild tasting surimi is a convincing substitute for angulas is a testament to the fact that true angulas don't taste like much.

Where to Buy Angulas

Several internet retailers based in the United States carry 4-ounce jars of Spanish baby eels. They can be found online under brands like Conservas de Cambados, La Tienda, and Iberia. These real baby eels are from places like Galicia and are hand-prepared and packed in oil. Typically, the product is already seasoned with salt and cayenne pepper. 

If you're curious, but not enough to spend a small fortune, the imitation version might be more your speed. Gulas are available in jars or cans (4 oz/111 grams) for a fraction of the cost. Gulas can be enjoyed on sliced bread topped with mayonnaise and red peppers.