The popular sweet and savory sauce that adds richness and umami, Eel Sauce is a key component of Japanese cuisine. Also known as unagi sauce or kabayaki sauce, it is super easy to make at home. This traditional Eel Sauce recipe uses just 3 ingredients and comes together in minutes, resulting in a rich and flavorful sauce that is deliciously versatile!
My husband adores all things sushi and his most favorite of all would have to be grilled eel, usually in the form of unagi nigiri. And while he loves the eel itself, he is especially fond of the eel sauce – that thick and sticky, savory-sweet sauce that comes drizzled over the eel. Homemade eel sauce is incredibly simple to make and is as delicious as it is versatile! This authentic eel sauce is made with just 3 ingredients and will keep in the fridge for up to a couple of months.
What is Eel Sauce?
Eel sauce, also known as kabayaki sauce, is a thick, sweet, and savory sauce that is popular in Japanese cuisine. Despite its name, it doesn’t actually contain eel, rather it is commonly used as a glaze for grilled or broiled eel dishes such as unadon (grilled eel over rice) and and unagi nigiri (grilled eel sushi).
The primary ingredients in eel sauce is typically soy sauce, mirin (a sweet rice wine), and sugar (though for variation sometimes dashi is included – a broth made from bonito flakes or kombu – and sake for added complexity). These ingredients are simmered together until the sauce reduces and thickens to a syrup-like consistency with a glossy appearance. The result is a dark brown sauce with a rich, complex flavor combining the sweetness of the mirin and sugar with the savory saltiness from the soy sauce. Unagi sauce has a distinctive caramel-like taste with hints of umami and it is used to add depth and richness and to enhance the natural flavors of the eel while providing a sweet and savory balance.
While there is a slight distinction, the terms eel sauce and unagi sauce are also used interchangeably. In Japanese it is known as unagi no tare, which translates as “eel sauce”.
How to Use Eel Sauce
Eel sauce, or unagi sauce, is most commonly served with grilled or broiled eel dishes. But it deliciously versatile and goes great with a variety of other foods. Here are a few ways to use it:
- Glaze for Grilled Eel, Meat and Chicken: The most traditional way to use eel sauce is as a glaze for grilled or broiled eel. The sauce is brushed onto the eel fillets while they are cooking, resulting in a flavorful, glossy coating. It can likewise be used as a glaze for other seafood as well as beef, pork, or chicken.
- Sushi, Sashimi and Rolls: Aside from eel-based sushi you can use this sauce with other sushi rolls and nigiri. It goes great with ingredients like avocado, cucumber, crab, and shrimp. Drizzle a small amount over the sushi for flavor.
- Rice or Noodle Bowls: Unagi sauce is a delicious way to give your rice and noodle bowls a flavor boost. Use it as a glaze for the grilled eel or protein of your choice and then drizzle some more over the steamed rice before topping it with the grilled eel or meat.
- Stir-Fries: Add a drizzle of this sauce to your stir-fries during the cooking process, tossing the vegetables, proteins, and sauce together for richness and flavor.
- Marinade or Dip: Unagi sauce makes a great marinade or dip for seafood, meat, chicken, and vegetables. Use it as a dip for things like fried dumplings, tempura, spring rolls, and grilled skewers.
- Drizzling Condiment: Drizzle it over roasted vegetables, grilled meats, or even as a finishing touch on noodles or stir-fries.
What Ingredients are in Eel Sauce?
Eel sauce is typically made with just 3 ingredients:
- Japanese Soy Sauce: The base of eel sauce which provides a savory and umami-rich flavor. Be sure to use Japanese soy sauce or tamari. Yes, Japanese soy sauce tastes different. It is brewed/fermented versus chemically processed and has a much better, more complex flavor without the excessively sharp saltiness.
- Mirin (Sweet Rice Wine): Another key ingredient, it adds a sweet and slightly tangy taste to the sauce.
- Sugar: Sugar is used to balance the savory flavors and saltiness and to add sweetness to the sauce. It also enables the sauce to thicken as it simmers and contributes to the caramelization and glazing of the sauce.
In addition to these 3 base ingredients, variations to add greater depth of flavor can also include:
- Dashi: A Japanese stock made from bonito flakes or kombu (kelp) which adds a subtle depth of flavor.
- Sake: A Japanese rice wine which adds complexity and richness to the sauce.
What Can I Substitute For Mirin?
Some recipes recommend dry white wine or marsala as substitutes but neither of these are suitable if you’re aim is an authentic Japanese flavor. Both of these have a comparatively overpowering flavor and a higher alcohol content which will not yield the right flavor outcome. Really the only suitable substitute for mirin in this unagi sauce is sake mixed with sugar at a ratio of 3 to 1, but even that will not result in quite the right flavor. I strongly recommend investing in mirin, an ingredient that you’ll need for other Japanese dishes anyway, including when you’re making teriyaki sauce.
Eel Sauce Recipe
Let’s get started!
This unagi sauce recipe is super simple to make and takes just 3 ingredients.
Place all of the ingredients in a small saucepan over medium heat. Stir until the sugar is completely dissolved.
Bring the mixture to a simmer, then reduce the heat to low. Allow the sauce to simmer gently for 10-15 minutes, stirring occasionally, or until the sauce has reduced by nearly half and has thickened to a syrup-like consistency. Remove it from the heat and allow it to cool completely. It will continue to thicken slightly as it cools.
Transfer the eel sauce to an airtight jar and store it in the refrigerator where it will keep for at least 2 months.
For more delicious homemade Asian sauces be sure to try our:
- Yum Yum Sauce
- Ginger Sauce
- Ponzu Sauce
- Sweet and Sour Sauce
- Teriyaki Sauce
- Sweet Chili Sauce
- Plum Sauce
- Hoisin Sauce
- Black Bean Sauce
- Kecap Manis
Eel Sauce (Unagi Sauce)
- Place all of the ingredients in a small saucepan over medium heat. Stir until the sugar is completely dissolved. Bring the mixture to a simmer, then reduce the heat to low. Allow the sauce to simmer gently for 10-15 minutes, stirring occasionally, or until the sauce has reduced by nearly half and has thickened to a syrup-like consistency. Remove it from the heat and allow it to cool completely. It will continue to thicken slightly as it cools. Transfer the eel sauce to an airtight jar and store it in the refrigerator where it will keep for at least 2 months.