To make sushi rice, you need sushi vinegar, which is easy to make if you have rice vinegar, sugar, and salt. Because unagi sauce is thick, it seems like it would be more challenging to make. However, it is easy to make.
To make delicious homemade unagi, you need Kirin, sugar, and soy sauce. The sauce needs to be cooked for 15 to 20 minutes and will thicken as it cools. Unagi sauce is traditionally served with Japanese eel but is tasty enough to be used as a dipping or sauce for many Japanese dishes.
The most challenging part of Unagi is not making the sauce but finding the Japanese eel. Read on to learn more about this fascinating eel and how to make unagi sauce.
What Is Unagi?
Unagi is a freshwater eel (Anguilla japonica) used in Japanese cooking. Although it is considered a freshwater eel, it spawns in saltwater over a thousand miles away from Japan before traveling to estuaries and other freshwater sources near Japan and surrounding countries.
Unagi is particularly prized in Japan because of its taste. But the eel provides many other benefits, including a variety of vitamins and an essential mineral, phosphorous, that supports digestion, metabolism and balances your pH level. Unagi also contains high levels of omega 3.
The eel is most often grilled, though smoking is a second option. Occasionally, you will find it deep-fried. However, it is never served raw.
How Do You Make Unagi Sushi Sauce?
Despite its name, almost all unagi sauces don’t contain eel. Sauce with eel is also referred to as kabayaki or nitsume sauce. Although the sauce traditionally accompanies grilled eel dishes, you can use it in any dish where you want a sweet and savory sauce that can be used for dipping or as a glaze.
Unagi sauce only requires a few ingredients and is easy to make. You will need mirin, sugar, soy sauce, and sake. Although the sake is optional, it adds a fruity, slightly bitter flavor.
- 6 ½ tablespoons Mirin
- 3 ½ tablespoons sugar
- 6 ½ tablespoons soy sauce
- 2 ½ tablespoons sake
If you want a sweeter sauce, add additional sugar, one teaspoon at a time. Use either drinking or cooking sake.
- Combine the ingredients in a saucepan. Once the mixture begins to boil, reduce the heat to low.
- Cook for 15 to 20 minutes.
- Stir frequently to prevent the sugar from burning.
- Once the sauce is thick, let it cool. Expect it to thicken as it cools.
- Serve and enjoy.
The extra sauce should be stored in the refrigerator and will last several weeks. Store-bought sauce lasts longer due to added preservatives. Due to the sauce’s popularity, you can find it in many grocery stores. It’s also available online, where you might find more options, such as this Suzuk Vegan Sushi Unagi Sauce or this certified Kosher Sweet Sushi Unagi Sauce.
Traditional Unagi Sauce
Traditional Unagi sauce, also known as Nitsume Sauce, contains eel. You probably aren’t interested in simmering eels in water until only a thick glaze remains, but you can still make Nitsume sauce by adding eel broth to the mirin, soy sauce, and sugar.
Cooked eel broth, however, is difficult to find, and you will probably have to go to an Asian grocery store and have them special order it. Amazingly, an American cookbook printed in 1859 has not one but two recipes for eel broth.
Making eel broth is easy. You will need smoked eel scraps, kombu seaweed, and water.
Combine ½ pound eel scraps and 1-ounce seaweed in 2 cups water. Once the water is boiling, turn off the heat. Cover the pan with plastic wrap to infuse the flavors. Wait 30 minutes, then strain off the liquid, cool over ice, and refrigerate.
If you feel adventurous enough to make Nitsume sauce, you will have to cook it on low until the liquid has evaporated.
Is Unagi Cooked in Sushi?
Although raw fish used in sushi can have bacteria or parasites, proper storage and preparation minimize the risks. Occasional outbreaks of salmonella have occurred, but when they do, few people are affected. For example, an outbreak in 2015 caused 53 people in 9 states to get sick. Consider that millions of sushi orders were eaten during that time, the odds of getting sick from raw fish in sushi are small.
That is not the case with Unagi, however. Eel’s blood contains a protein that paralyzes the muscles. Since your heart is also a muscle, even a little blood is deadly. Luckily, cooking destroys the eel’s toxic proteins, which is why all eel is cooked in some manner.
Whether you are eating eel sushi in a restaurant or making your own, the eel needs to be cooked.
Where Can I Get Unagi?
Unagi eel is difficult to find. If you have an Asian market nearby, you might be able to find someone, especially if they have a fishmonger. Don’t get too excited if you go to Target or Walmart’s website and type in Unagi. You will probably get Sushi Unagi sauce. Or a roasted eel wall art print.
Specialized online retailers, such as Fulton Fish Market, carry pre-cooked, frozen eel. Be prepared for the sticker shock—a 10-ounce package can cost upwards of $20. The Old Fisherman Roasted Eel is another option.
Fresh Eel Tip: If you can get fresh Unagi, it is a slippery fish, so be careful when you cut it.
Once you find some Japanese eel, you don’t want it to go to waste. Luckily, preparing Unagi is not tricky. The easiest way is to roast them.
- Preheat the broiler to 500 degrees.
- Use foil to line your baking sheet and spray with oil.
- Place the eel, skin side down, on the foil.
- Broil for 5 to 7 minutes. The surface should be blistered, not burned.
- Take out the eel, brush with the unagi sauce and broil until you see bubbles on the eel. This will typically be under a minute.
The Unagi can also be baked in a 425-degree oven. Line the baking sheet with parchment paper and bake for 10 to 12 minutes. Like with the broiled Unagi, the surface should be blistered.
Fresh eel tip: Fresh eel tends to shrink as it is cooked. Satay sticks or skewers will help keep the eel in shape.
Variations on Unagi
Unagi can be prepared and served in numerous ways. To help you navigate the world of Unagi, here’s a short glossary:
- Tare. Any Japanese dipping sauce is called a tare. A search for tare will include recipes for Unagi as well as other sauces.
- Kabayaki. If you see kabayaki on a menu, expect the grilled Unagi to be served on skewers.
- Unakyu. The word for sushi with eel and cucumber.
- Shirayaki. Eel roasted and seasoned with salt.
- Anago. Saltwater eel.
- Unagi pie. A cookie that contains crushed Unagi and garlic. Don’t expect much eel flavor in these Kabayaki Cookies.
- Unadon versus Jubako. Eel served over rice in a rice bowl is called unadon. Unaju refers to the same dish served in a lacquered bento box, like this Bento Box by JapanBargain.
If You Cannot Find Unagi Eel, What Then?
Unagi sauce is tasty enough that it goes well with many dishes. Think of it as an Asian BBQ sauce. Use it on grilled meat or fish or as a marinade for tofu. It makes an excellent dressing for noodles, and some people love using it for dishes such as grilled rice balls (Yaki Onigiri).
Unagi sauce is easy to make and complements many dishes, not just Unagi Eel. Along with the three ingredients—Kirin, sugar, and soy sauce—you can also add sake. In upscale Japanese, unagi sauce recipes are a closely guarded secret, so feel free to experiment.
Remember that eel should always be cooked before being eaten as the poison in its blood is deadly.
Here are some of my favorite sushi making tools
Thank you for reading this article. I hope you find it useful as you make sushi at home. Here are some tools I’ve used that I hope you’ll find helpful, too. These are affiliate links, so if you decide to use any of them, I will earn a commission. But honestly, these are the exact tools that I use and recommend to everyone, even my family.
Rice cooker: For getting started, I really like Zojirushi Rice Cooker. The Zojirushi Rice cooker does not only make rice-cooking dirt simple, but it is a quality gadget that cooks better than most chefs can. Unlike most kitchen gadgets, it does not sacrifice quality for convenience.
Knife:The Kai Knife is one of the best sushi knives in the market. Made in Japan’s famous knife-making capital, Seki city.
- The Spruce Eats: What is Unagi
- Colonial Sense: Eel Broth
- Pickled Plum: Eel Sauce
- All My Chefs: Smoked Eel Stock