Unagi, or freshwater eel, stands out as one of the most prized ingredients in Japanese cuisine. Known for its rich, savory flavor and elegant texture, unagi transforms dishes through its umami depth and tender meat. From traditional rice bowls to contemporary fusions, unagi’s versatility enables it to star in an array of mouthwatering preparations. These 10 iconic unagi dishes showcase the eel’s stellar qualities and highlight its role in Japanese food culture. They offer inspiration for savoring unagi at its finest.
1. Unadon (Unagi Donburi)
Unadon exemplifies the beauty of classic kaiseki presentation through its simple elegance. This dish features fillets of grilled unagi layered artfully over a bowl of steaming rice. A thick savory-sweet tare sauce is then drizzled over the unagi and rice, uniting the key components in sticky umami flavor. Known as unagi kabayaki, the fillets are first grilled over charcoal or binchotan to caramelize the exteriors while keeping the inside tender. The precision cooking enhances unagi’s natural gifts.
Part of unadon’s appeal lies in its balanced construction of rice, protein and sauce. The soft white rice contrasts pleasingly with the smokey eel. The tare adds a glossy glaze that allows the distinct flavors to meld seamlessly. Quality and freshness are vital, as with all kaiseki dishes. When executed well, unadon is the epitome of simple flavors and textures harmonizing elegantly. The browned unagi atop glistening rice is visually stunning while delivering incredible savoriness.
2. Unajyu (Grilled Eel Rice Box)
For a satisfying one-bowl meal, unajyu is an excellent choice. This dish presents grilled unagi as part of a bento box-style layered rice creation. Steamed white rice forms the base, followed by fillets or strips of unagi kabayaki. Sweet tare sauce is again drizzled over the unagi pieces for added stickiness and glaze. Pickled ginger and toasted nori sheets often accompany unajyu as refreshing palate cleansers between bites of umami-rich eel.
Part of the pleasure of unajyu lies in its varied textures within a single dish. The steaming rice contrasts the savory, slightly chewy eel. Crunchy ginger and strips of nori add further dimensions. Eaten together, the components offer a symphony of flavors and mouthfeel. Unajyu makes for a transportable and balanced meal thanks to its bento-style compartmentalization in a box or bowl. It provides energy and satisfaction in an artful format.
3. Nagayaki (Long Grilled Eel)
This traditional preparation highlights unagi’s stellar natural qualities with minimal adornment. Nagayaki features a whole freshwater eel grilled over charcoal or binchotan until the skin is slightly crispy and interior cooked through. Only salt and sauce are applied to the eel during grilling to allow its flavor to dominate. The key is controlling the fire to achieve an ideal char without overcooking.
Nagayaki is all about savoring high-quality unagi at its purest. The fish is served whole on a wooden plank with freshly steamed rice on the side. Condiments are up to the diner, but usually only minced negi and grated wasabi are provided to prevent overwhelming the eel. The eye-catching presentation and focus on pristine ingredients make nagayaki special. Enjoying the unadulterated taste of tender grilled unagi is the hallmark of this dish.
4. Shirayaki (Plain Grilled Eel)
Like nagayaki, shirayaki focuses on preparing unagi with minimal seasoning to highlight its natural gifts. The difference lies in shirayaki featuring fillets rather than a whole fish. The unagi fillets are lightly salted then grilled over white charcoal, which burns hotter than black charcoal and imparts less smoky flavor. Grilling time is brief to prevent drying out the eel while creating a perfect char.
Part of shirayaki’s appeal is the textural contrast between the crispy charred exterior and the fatty, juicy interior of the fillets. The plain preparation allows the mouthwatering flavor of the fish itself to shine. Shirayaki is served like nagayaki with steaming rice and simple garnishes on the side. Diners can add dipping sauces, wasabi and negi as desired to complement the star ingredient. When the unagi is sublime, shirayaki is hard to beat for sheer flavor and enjoyment.
5. Umaki (Eel Omelette)
Adding unagi to Japan’s fluffy tamagoyaki omelette creates a beloved bite called umaki. Preparation involves rolling thin strips of unagi into sweetened dashi-based omelette cooked rolled in layers in a rectangular pan. The result features faint sweetness complementing the rich eel within the soft, cloud-like egg custard. Umaki makes a perfect snack, side or bento box addition.
Beyond flavor, part of umaki’s appeal is its beguiling, pillowy texture contrasting the tender fish strips. Good umaki relies on fresh, fatty unagi that retains moisture within the egg medium. Balancing the sweetness and egginess to allow the umami of the eel to penetrate is key. Umaki is often served in slices with a brushing of tare sauce, nori strips, bonito flakes or candied masago for extra flavor and crunch. This sublime offering showcases unagi in an innovative way that highlights its gifts.
6. Unagi Sushi
Unagi transforms sushi into a luxurious experience thanks to its rich flavor and soft texture. Popular unagi sushi offerings include unagi nigiri with strips of grilled eel over pressed vinegared rice, and unagi maki rolls with eel and cucumber wrapped in nori seaweed and rice. The traditional preparation involves lightly grilling unagi over binchotan before slicing and sauce-brushing the fillets. This enhances flavor and texture.
The smoked sweetness of the unagi complements the rice’s subtle tanginess in nigiri or maki. The chewy nori in maki contrasts the creamy rice and tender eel. Pairing refreshing ingredients like cucumber, avocado and microgreens prevents unagi from overwhelming. In all cases, the quality and knife skills of the sushi chef make a difference. Unagi sushi allows this stellar fish to be enjoyed in small, balanced bites that emphasize its versatility within Japanese cuisine.
7. Unagi Nigiri
As a premium nigiri offering, unagi nigiri warrants its own spotlight. Carefully wrapping strips of tare-brushed, grilled unagi over nigari-vinegared rice mounds requires precise skill. The sushi chef must balance flavors and textures perfectly in each bite. Beyond sourced unagi, the sweet tare sauce enhances the eel’s flavor while uniting it with the rice base. Wasabi can be placed between fish and rice, or served on the side for swirling in soy sauce.
What makes unagi nigiri special is how it allows the eel’s savory umami to shine through. The tender fish with subtle char complements the rice’s tang without overpowering. The proportions and construction maximize enjoyment of the high-quality ingredients. Unagi nigiri represents the art of Edo-style sushi at its finest. This elegant bite encapsulates Japanese attention to detail and pursuit of pure flavor balance.
8. Hitsumabushi (Nagoya-style Grilled Eel)
Among unagi connoisseurs, hitsumabushi is revered for its unique dining experience. Originating in Nagoya, hitsumabushi features grilled unagi fillets and rice prepared in three distinct styles: on a plate over rice; in a bowl with dashi broth; and with tea poured over the rice. Each preparation highlights unagi’s abilities and allows tastes to evolve throughout the meal.
Complemented by pickles and tea, hitsumabushi turns unagi enjoyment into a multifaceted tradition. The dish includes ohitsu rice cooked in unagi fat for added savoriness. The broth and tea extend and refresh flavors between sections. Offering unagi in these varied formats expands appreciation of tastes and textures. Hitsumabushi embodies thoughtful Japanese hospitality through its care in letting diners savor a single stellar ingredient in diverse ways over one sitting.
9. Kabayaki (Skewered and Grilled Eel)
No unagi dish list would be complete without unagi kabayaki, the signature grilled eel preparation. Kabayaki features fillets of unagi threaded onto flat bamboo skewers before being grilled over binchotan charcoal. During grilling, the fillets are repeatedly brushed with a tare sauce mixture that caramelizes and glazes the exterior. This enhances savoriness and introduces appealing texture.
When done well, kabayaki showcases smoky, savory unagi with a touch of sweetness and perfect tenderness inside. The fish should have a lustrous shine and irresistible aroma. Served over rice or on its own, kabayaki represents the quintessential unagi experience. The preparation seals in moisture and ratchets up umami flavors through the sauce coating. For many, well-executed unagi kabayaki epitomizes flavorful Japanese comfort food at its finest.
10. Kimosui Soup (Eel Liver Soup)
While uncommon outside Japan, the nourishing soup kimosui spotlights unagi’s gifts in broth form. Kimosui features unagi livers simmered for long hours in a base of soy sauce, mirin, sake and bonito dashi. Slow cooking allows the unagi essence to infuse the entire soup, creating an intensely savory result. Often negi, shiitake and shrimp are also simmered in kimosui for layers of umami.
Regarded as a stamina food, kimosui is treasured for its deeply satisfying flavor and viscous texture akin to velvet. Unagi livers contribute appealing viscosity along with their concentrated taste. The soup is served in lacquer bowls with steaming rice on the side. Kimosui represents quintessential Japanese comfort food at its richest. Savoring this ultra-soulful soup is a singular experience for unagi aficionados seeking the eel’s deepest gifts.
How is Unagi Traditionally Consumed in Sushi?
Unagi nigiri and unagi maki represent two of the most beloved types of sushi featuring freshwater eel. Unagi’s history in sushi traces back centuries, when the nutritious, satisfying fish was a favorite of the Japanese elite. Grilled eel served over vinegared rice remains a specialty today.
The classic preparation of unagi for sushi involves lightly grilling the eel over a charcoal fire, resulting in the characteristic smoky caramelization. The grilled eel is then brushed with a sweet tare sauce and sliced into strips. Skilled sushi chefs will masterfully wrap these strips around mounds of sushi rice to create unagi nigiri, with the sauce complementing the rice’s subtle tartness. For maki rolls, the unagi strips are placed within sheets of nori seaweed alongside rice and other fillings like cucumber. The contrasting textures of the crunchy eel, creamy rice and chewy nori make the experience of eating unagi maki highly appealing.
Unagi also pairs wonderfully with avocado in sushi, whether in rolls or nigiri. The rich, buttery avocado complements the sweet and savory eel. Shiso leaf and cucumber are also refreshing complements. Classic sushi condiments like pickled ginger and wasabi can help balance unagi’s richness. Overall, unagi’s umami flavor profile elevates sushi, while the rice and seaweed enhance the eel’s natural sweetness.
What Makes Unagi Donburi a Favorite?
Unagi donburi highlights this premium ingredient in a classic preparation typically served at specialty eel restaurants in Japan. The dish features grilled, sliced unagi arranged elegantly over a bowl of steaming white rice. Sweet-savory tare sauce is then drizzled over the unagi and rice, uniting the components with sticky glaze and caramelized flavor. Known as kabayakiunagi, this preparation enhances the fish’s flavor while introducing appealing texture.
Part of donburi’s appeal lies in its beautiful presentation and composition. The dish offers a balanced combination of rice, protein and sauce in an aesthetically pleasing format. While seemingly simple, excellent donburi relies on high-quality ingredients like perfectly grilled unagi and well-seasoned rice. The tender fish and soft, warm rice make for incredible mouthfeel. The sweet tare pairs well with pickled sides like ginger or crunchy vegetables.
Donburi’s balance and beauty have made it a lunchtime favorite across Japan. Unagi donburi provides sustenance and satisfaction through its nutritional and savory elements. Fresh grated wasabi and crisp temaki seaweed on the side can provide further contrast. For many Japanese diners, a bowl of unagi donburi cooked to perfection is the peak of flavor and comfort.
How is Unagi Incorporated in Bento Boxes?
The balanced bento box meal traditionally includes rice, fish or meat, pickled vegetables and sides in partitioned sections of a box or container. Unagi can be a centerpiece ingredient of bento, providing flavor, texture and nutrition. Grilled unagi fillets or rolls are commonly included, often complemented by sweet sauces or glazes along with tart dipping options.
Some unagi bento preparations involve unagi kabayaki layered over rice as a donburi-inspired component of the box. Other sides that pair well include tamagoyaki omelette, octopus wieners, shrimp tempura and pickled burdock root. The array of sides, condiments and sauces that accompany unagi allow bento creators to offset unagi’s richness while incorporating complementary flavors.
For example, the salty tang of umeboshi pickled plums can provide pleasing contrast to the sweet unagi glaze. Small servings of miso soup also aid digestion. Unagi thereby takes on a starring role among the variety of tastes, colors and textures within the bento box presentation. Its inclusion makes for a filling, balanced meal.
Can You Add Unagi in Soups?
Japanese soups provide a warming, comforting application for unagi’s flavor. Both traditional and modern soups feature unagi for its savory umami kick and tender protein contribution. Some classic unagi soup preparations include:
Unagi stew – Chunks of unagi simmered in dashi broth with soy sauce, mirin and vegetables like shiitake mushrooms. Hearty and flavorful.
Unagi porridge – Mixed with rice, dashi and egg, creating a creamy, comforting porridge accented by unagi. Can have ginger, negi or other seasonings.
Miso soup with unagi – Slices or bits of unagi provide savory contrast to the miso base seasoned with wakame seaweed and tofu. A staple comfort food.
The key when cooking unagi soups is ensuring the eel does not overcook and become rubbery. Gentle simmering retains unagi’s tenderness to contrast nicely with broth textures. Unagi also enhances the umami flavors of the dashi and complements standard soup ingredients like mushrooms, negi and tofu. The result is a soothing soup with added savoriness.
Why Choose Unagi Salads for a Fresh Twist?
While unagi is known for its role in traditional Japanese fare, eel also shines when incorporated in contemporary salads. The rich unagi pairs surprisingly well with crisp, fresh vegetables and bright citrus dressings. Popular unagi salad preparations include:
Unagi avocado salad – Mixed greens, unagi strips, avocado, cucumber and carrot tossed in a light lemon vinaigrette. Creamy and refreshing.
Unagi seaweed salad – Blanched spinach, wakame seaweed, unagi pieces, sesame seeds and umeboshi plums in a sweet vinegar dressing. Umai and nutritious.
Unagi soba noodle salad – Chilled soba noodles, blanched kale, edamame and unagi with toasted sesame oil and rice vinegar dressing. Satisfying crunch and savoriness.
The key is balancing unagi’s richness by pairing it with acidic, crunchy components. Citrus-based dressings like yuzu, ponzu or orange are ideal. Fresh greens and vegetables give contrasting texture. Salads allow unagi to shine in new ways, fusing Japanese tradition with healthful innovation.
How Does Unagi Shine as a Main Dish?
Beyond sushi and donburi, unagi takes center stage in main dishes that highlight its stellar flavor and texture. Favorites include:
Unagi kabayaki – The signature grilled eel preparation, featuring unagi fillets glazed with sweet soy sauce, grilled till caramelized and served over rice. Intensely savory and satisfying.
Unagi tempura – Chunks or strips of unagi lightly battered and fried tempura-style to a crisp exterior yet tender interior. Served with tentsuyu dipping sauce. An indulgent unagi experience.
Teriyaki unagi – Grilled unagi glazed with a sticky, gingery teriyaki sauce. Usually served with steamed rice and pickled vegetables. A perfect meaty main.
Unagi shirataki – Unagi pieces cooked in shirataki noodles with soy, mirin and ginger. Enjoy over rice or on its own. Comforting and full of flavor.
Hitsumabushi – Unagi rice bowls served in several styles for a unique dining experience. Often comes with pickles and tea. Highlights unagi’s versatility.
Expert preparation like precision grilling or frying followed by flavorful sauces or glazes make these unagi mains shine. Pairing with rice, noodles or sides allows the eel’s natural flavors to sing. Unagi is the undisputed star in these satisfying dishes.
In Which Side Dishes Can You Spot Unagi?
While excellent on its own, unagi can also elevate recipes as a featured side ingredient. Its rich flavor enhances all kinds of sides, snacks and small plates. Look for unagi in:
Unagi tamagoyaki – Thin strips of unagi in fluffy Japanese omelette, cooked in layers in a rectangle pan. Sweet, savory and soft.
Unagi takoyaki – Diced unagi mixed into batter pieces cooked in a special takoyaki pan into balls with a creamy interior and crispy exterior. Finished with tonkatsu sauce, mayo and bonito flakes. An addictive snack or appetizer.
Unagi egg drop soup – A Chinese-Japanese fusion with beaten egg drizzled into hot dashi soup with unagi pieces, negi and shiitake mushrooms. Light yet nourishing.
Unagi onigiri – The classic rice balls stuffed with bits of savory grilled unagi. Often wrapped in nori for an extra umami punch and portability.
Unagi croquettes – Mashed potato and unagi chunks like white in panko breadcrumbs and deep fried for an irresistible crunchy exterior and creamy interior. Served with tonkatsu sauce for dipping. Decadent finger food.
In each case, unagi’s richness enhances the dish, whether it’s omelette creaminess, onigiri savoriness or croquette crunch. Unagi’s flavor plays well with others as a complementary ingredient.
Have You Tried Unagi Sandwiches?
From sushi rolls to donburi bowls, unagi is no stranger to being served atop or between rice and seaweed. Increasingly, unagi is also finding its way into sandwich creations that fuse Japanese and Western flavors. Bakeries offering Japanese milk bread or fluffy shokupan make ideal unagi sandwich vessels.
Typically layered with unagi kabayaki, tartar sauce, avocado, cucumber and mixed greens between slices of pillowy bread, unagi sandwiches marry Eastern and Western ingredients and textures. The bread provides a base for the savory eel and creamy vegetables, with a satisfying crunch.
Variations on the unagi sandwich include spreads like eel sauce or spicy mayo for added flavor. Some high-end versions even incorporate luxury ingredients like Osetra caviar. For an extra Japanese touch, milk bread can be swapped for mochi bread with its chewy, glutinous quality. Whether in simple or gourmet form, unagi sandwiches bring together diverse flavors and textures in an innovative way.
How to Use Unagi as a Topping?
Beyond sushi and sandwiches, creative cooks are finding ways to use unagi as a showstopping topping for all kinds of dishes. Unagi’s caramelized glaze and tender meat make it an elegant topping for:
Pizza – Drizzle sweet soy glaze over a baked pizza crust. Top with sliced unagi, negi, roasted mushrooms, sesame seeds and microgreens. Finish by broiling till the unagi browns. Savory, sweet and crispy flavors unite.
Pasta – Toss hot udon noodles in sesame oil and soy sauce. Twirl into bowls topped with kabayaki unagi strips, shiso and shichimi togarashi spice mix. An upscale noodle dish.
Burgers – Grilled unagi fillets served atop juicy beef or veggie patties on brioche buns with all the fixings like cheese, lettuce and onion. Double the umami flavor.
Salads – Mixed greens, napa cabbage, carrots and cucumber topped artfully with thin strips of teriyaki glazed unagi. Finish with a citrus dressing and crunchy wonton strips. Elegant yet satisfying.
Tofu – Silken tofu cubes drizzled with sweet unagi sauce and topped with seared unagi pieces. Garnish with scallions. A luxurious vegan dish.
Thinly slicing and sautéing or broiling unagi helps create textual contrast. The umami intensity of unagi elevates everything it touches. Using unagi as a topping makes even familiar dishes special.
What Are the Varieties of Unagi Rolls Beyond Sushi?
Unagi’s popularity in sushi has inspired creative chefs to incorporate it into all manner of specialty rolls. Beyond nori seaweed, various wrappers lend themselves to unagi in rolled form:
Soy paper rolls – Filled with unagi, avocado, mango and mixed greens. The translucent wrapper lets the fillings shine through.
lettuce wraps – Shredded lettuce cups stuffed with unagi, carrot, cucumber and a flavorful sauce. Make for refreshing bite-sized rolls.
Uramaki – Inside-out sushi rolls wrapped in nori then rolled in sesame seeds, tobiko or masago. Unagi paired often with cream cheese in uramaki rolls.
Maki-zushi – Thicker sushi rolls with multiple ingredients like unagi, shrimp tempura and cucumber tightly rolled in nori and rice. Cut into slices to reveal colorful contents.
Korean kimbap – Unagi and kimchi wrapped in laver seaweed then sliced into cylindrical pieces. Also may contain egg, spinach and carrots.
Summer rolls – Unagi, rice vermicelli noodles and vegetables wrapped in soft rice paper. Served with a peanut hoisin dipping sauce.
With pliable wrappers encasing unagi and creative fillings, specialty rolls bring new dimensions, textures and flavors to the eel. Part of the fun is their dynamic combinations and varied presentations.
For centuries, Japanese chefs have been honing preparations that allow unagi’s stellar qualities to shine. From donburi bowls to sushi rolls, simple grilling to elegant layering, these dishes showcase unagi’s trademark savory depth and tender texture. Yet certain presentations like kabayaki and unadon stand out as pinnacles of the unagi tradition. Exploring the array of mouthwatering unagi fare provides insight into this culture and cuisine. Tasting stellar unagi is an opportunity to savor Japan’s culinary wisdom at its finest.