Does Eel Sauce Contain Eel? Unlock the Secrets of This Irresistible Japanese Sauce!

Sweet, savory, and bursting with flavor, Homemade Eel Sauce is the perfect accompaniment to Japanese broiled eel fillets and BBQ dishes. With just four simple ingredients, you can create this delicious sauce that will take your dishes to the next level.

Unagi sauce in a glass bottle.

Have you ever wondered about the caramelized, sweet, sticky, and salty sauce that pairs perfectly with grilled unagi (eel)? Well, that delectable dark brown sauce is none other than Eel Sauce, also known as Unagi Sauce (うなぎのたれ). It’s incredibly easy to make, and it adds a fantastic glaze or marinade to BBQ dishes, dragon rolls, and even rice balls.

Unveiling the Essence of Eel Sauce

Eel sauce, or unagi no tare (うなぎのたれ) in Japanese, is a thickened and sweetened soy sauce. Traditionally, it is used to enhance the flavor of grilled eel, unagi don, unagi sushi, and other dishes that feature this delectable fish. Despite its name, eel sauce actually does not contain any eel. While there are many commercial brands available, nothing beats the homemade version when it comes to taste and quality.

An Explosion of Flavors

The combination of sake, soy sauce, mirin, and sugar gives eel sauce its irresistible savory-sweet taste. Some might wonder if eel sauce is just another variation of teriyaki sauce, as the ingredients are quite similar. And the answer is yes, they are indeed similar. However, when it comes to the richness and sweetness, you’ll notice subtle differences between the two.

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If you’re interested in making authentic Japanese teriyaki sauce, you can find my recipe here.

A lacquer bowl containing Unagi (Eel) over steamed rice.

Crafting Your Own Eel Sauce

Creating your own eel sauce at home is incredibly simple. All you need are four basic ingredients to achieve a rich and umami-packed sauce, just like the ones you find in Japan.

The Essential Ingredients

  • Sake (Japanese Rice Wine) – Adds umami to the sauce. You can find sake at major Japanese/Asian grocery stores or well-stocked liquor stores.
  • Mirin (Sweet Rice Wine) – Imparts mild sweetness and luster to the sauce.
  • Soy Sauce – Opt for Japanese soy sauce, as it has a distinct flavor compared to Chinese, Korean, or Thai soy sauce. Learn more about it here. If you prefer a gluten-free version, you can use Gluten-Free Soy Sauce.
  • Sugar – Besides sweetness, sugar helps naturally thicken the sauce.

Sake, mirin, and soy sauce are essential staples in Japanese cooking, so it’s worth stocking up if you plan to explore more Japanese recipes at home.

Note: Authentic unagi sauce doesn’t include rice vinegar as it adds an acidic tang that doesn’t contribute to the integrity of the sauce. Also, resist the temptation to add garlic, ginger, or cornstarch to the sauce. These additions would deviate from the true essence of unagi sauce.

The Cooking Process

  1. Combine the mixture in a small pot and let it simmer until the sauce caramelizes and thickens to your desired richness.

One of the advantages of making your own eel sauce instead of buying the bottled variety is that you can customize the balance of sweetness and saltiness according to your preference. Plus, there are no additives or preservatives to worry about.

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A donburi bowl containing grilled eel fillet over steamed rice.

The Versatility of Eel Sauce

Besides its traditional use with unagi dishes, eel sauce can elevate the flavor of various BBQ dishes. Imagine adding a light brush or drizzle of this sweet-savory sauce to grilled fish, pan-fried chicken, tofu, mushrooms, or onigiri rice balls. It’s simply finger-licking delicious! Additionally, you can use it as a marinade for meats or as a dressing for noodles. However, it’s not typically used as a dipping sauce.

If you’re searching for new flavors to enhance your grilling experience, give this recipe a try! It’s one of my personal favorites for summer cooking.

Don’t forget that you can double the batch and store the leftover sauce in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to 2-3 months, ensuring you always have a supply of this delectable sauce on hand.

A Japanese blue and white plate containing Yaki Onigiri - Japanese Grilled Rice Balls.

Where to Find Eel Sauce

You can find bottled eel sauce in the condiment section of Japanese grocery stores and well-stocked Asian supermarkets. If you don’t have access to these stores, you can also purchase it online through platforms like Amazon.

Explore More Authentic Japanese Sauces

If you’re interested in making more authentic Japanese sauces at home, here are a few recipes to consider:

  • Teriyaki Sauce – The Japanese way!
  • Tonkatsu Sauce
  • Ponzu Sauce
  • How to Make Japanese Kewpie Mayonnaise

Wish to learn more about Japanese cooking? Don’t forget to sign up for our free newsletter to receive cooking tips & recipe updates! And stay connected with us on Facebook, Pinterest, YouTube, and Instagram.

Editor’s Note: This post was originally published on May 6, 2013, and has been updated with new images in May 2019.

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