If you’re a fan of Japanese food, you’ll eventually stumble across Unagi sauce, whether you’re eating out or cooking a Japanese dish at home that calls for it. But what is it exactly? What is it made of, what does it taste like? Well, you’ve come to the right place. You’ll find this all out and much, much more here today.
So, what is Unagi sauce? Unagi sauce is a type of thickened and sweetened soy sauce. It has a typical sweet and salty taste and is usually used to complement Japanese barbeque dishes or even noodles and snacks.
Unagi sauce, eel sauce, Nitsume, and Kabayaki, they’re all the same.
I know the name ‘Eel sauce’ might not be appealing to a lot of you, but fret not!
No eels are harmed in the making of the sauce.
The name actually originates from the time when it was traditionally served with grilled eel dishes, such as Unadon.
And while that covers the basics of what you should know about unagi sauce, there’s a lot more you will want to know. So let’s get into it!
What Is Unagi Sauce Made Of?
Unagi sauce is usually made with a combination of soy sauce, some kind of sugar, and a type of Japanese wine called Mirin. Some people also like to add Japanese rice wine, Sake to improve the smell and taste of the sauce.
If you’re making your own at home, you can substitute the soy sauce with gluten-free soy sauce to make gluten-free unagi sauce!
If you don’t have Mirin, you can also use a different kind of white wine like chardonnay, pinot grigio, and sauvignon blanc.
Here’s a basic recipe for Unagi sauce to give you an idea:
Homemade Unagi Sauce
- ½ cup soy sauce
- ½ cup white sugar
- ½ cup mirin or white wine of your choice
- Combine all ingredients in a saucepan
- Cook until it reduces to about ¾ cup in total
- Wait until it cools down, and then store in an airtight bottle or container
Similarly, you can add 1-2 tbsp of Sake to the same recipe to tweak it a little.
Homemade unagi sauce can usually last for up to 2 weeks in an airtight container in the fridge.
Soy sauce, sugar, and Mirin are usually the only ingredients people use to make Unagi sauce, but as I said, you can change the wine that goes in, depending on what you have available or your own preferences.
Branded Unagi Sauce
There are many brands of Unagi sauce available on the market. What is available for you will depend on where you are in the world, and where you are shopping.
Nevertheless, Kikkoman Unagi sauce is one of the most popular brands, and one of the most widely available.
Here is the full ingredient list, for reference:
Sugar, Water, Soy sauce (Water, Soybeans, Wheat, Salt), Modified starch, Caramelised sugar syrup, Salt, Ethyl alcohol, Molasses, Yeast extract, Seaweed (Ascophyllum nodosum) powder.
So you can see there are a few more added ingredients than your average homemade recipe.
But the base remains the same, including the essential soy sauce, and a sweetening ingredient (this time in the form of caramelized sugar syrup).
Wondering where to buy Unagi? Then checkout my other guide here: Where To Buy Eel Sauce
What Does Unagi Sauce Taste Like?
Think of soy sauce, but a thickened, more sweetened version of it that gives it a more full-bodied, rich flavor. That is what unagi sauce tastes like.
Some people like to compare unagi sauce to BBQ sauce since it has that similar sweet and salty, full-bodied flavor to it, but it lacks the tartness that comes from tomatoes in BBQ sauce.
Unagi sauce is also comparable to oyster sauce or teriyaki sauce since it has that thickened, sweet, and savory touch to it.
But let me just clarify a common misconception, Unagi sauce DOES NOT taste fishy!
It’s served with a lot of seafood dishes, but the sauce itself does not have any fishy components in it.
It’s called eel sauce simply because it’s used in a lot of eel dishes.
What To Eat Unagi Sauce With
Traditionally, Unagi sauce was used to top eel dishes like a grilled eel, Unaju, or unagi sushi. But over the years, it has become popular with many Japanese dishes, especially BBQ dishes! It pairs well with grilled meat, tofu, and even yaki onigiri (grilled rice balls).
If you like the flavor, you can get creative with what you’re using it for.
People like to use unagi sauce in fish wraps, chicken sandwiches, a stir-fry, rice bowls, and even noodles!
It is commonly drizzled over Japanese appetizer dishes such as grilled prawns, fried tempura, and batter-coated fish.
You can also use it as a drizzle over pizza, sushi, and really anything if you think you’d like the combination!
Plus, you don’t necessarily have to use it for Japanese dishes only! You can use it to glaze your chicken, steaks, and prawns. You can also use it as a drizzle over salads or whatever else you want!
What Is Similar To Unagi Sauce?
If you’re looking for a substitute or for a sauce that is similar to Unagi, you can try using teriyaki sauce, galbi, oyster sauce, dark soya sauce, hoisin sauce, and even ponzu.
As versatile as unagi sauce is, it might not be available everywhere, and not all of us have the patience to make our own.
Thankfully, you have alternatives.
Of course, they all vary a little bit in terms of how they taste since they use different ingredients, but overall, the flavor profile is pretty similar, and I’m sure you can wing it by tweaking the recipe a little.
For example, you can make a drizzle using dark soy sauce and a little bit of sugar to get something that tastes pretty close to how Unagi would.
To Wrap It Up
Unagi sauce is a staple in a lot of Japanese foods because of the versatility and punch of flavor it packs in.
It’s a smooth, sweet, and savory sauce that pairs well with grilled dishes, sushi, noodles, and even wraps!
If you’re a fan of Japanese cuisine, the chances are that you’ve already had the sauce in some form.
But if you want to try it individually, pick it up on your next grocery trip, or better yet, make some at home since it requires three basic ingredients you probably already have around!
Since there are no peculiar flavors to the sauce, you can most likely use it in a tonne of dishes, and it won’t go to waste!
There is no harm in trying, is there?
Unagi and Eel sauce are just different names for the same thing. It is also called Kabayaki or Nitsume. If you see a sauce labeled as any of those, it’s all the same thing.
Unagi sauce is not the same as Oyster sauce. While they are both darkly colored, savory, and somewhat sweet, Oyster sauce is made from oyster juices, salt, and sugar whereas Unagi is made from Soy Sauce and a Japanese wine such as Mirin/Sake.
Hi there. I’m Jeremy – a passionate food technologist with several decades in the food industry. With a love for sauces, food, and nutrition, I decided to create WeWantTheSauce. Here I share my experience, knowledge, and recommendations; from ingredients and recipes to storage all the way through to nutrition for every sauce imaginable.