What Is the Main Ingredient in Unagi Sushi?

Unagi sushi is a popular type of nigiri sushi featuring freshwater eel that is grilled and glazed with a sweet sauce. The main ingredient in unagi sushi is unagi, the Japanese word for freshwater eel.

Eel has been enjoyed in Japanese cuisine for centuries and is revered for its rich, savory flavor and velvety texture. For unagi sushi, the eel fillet is grilled over charcoal using a technique called kabayaki to caramelize the natural oils and enhance the flavor. It is then brushed with a special tare sauce, often called unagi sauce, made from soy sauce, mirin, and sugar. This gives the eel a shiny, lacquered appearance and balances the rich fattiness of the eel with sweet and salty notes.

Thin slices of the grilled, glazed eel are placed over blocks of vinegared sushi rice and sliced nori seaweed. The sushi is then shaped into the long, rectangular nigiri formation. When biting into a piece of unagi nigiri, the soft, pillowy rice complements the tender unagi, which almost melts in your mouth. The smoky, caramelized eel blends beautifully with the vinegary rice and umami-rich nori to create a sublime sushi experience.

How to Prepare Unagi for Sushi

Making unagi sushi at home starts with procuring high-quality fresh or frozen unagi fillets. Look for glistening, boneless cuts of eel with the delicate bones removed. Kabayaki preparation is key to developing the unagi’s complex flavor. The eel can be broiled or grilled until browned and slightly charred on the outside and cooked through on the inside. Keep brushing the eel with the tare sauce as it cooks to build up the glaze.

Once cooked, the unagi is ready to slice into long strips. Place the still warm eel over neatly shaped sushi rice topped with nori. Dip your knife into water frequently while slicing the eel to prevent the fish from sticking to the blade. Use freshly made or high-quality store-bought unagi sauce to finish the nigiri.

Other Ingredients in Unagi Sushi

In addition to eel, rice, and nori, authentic unagi sushi also includes:

  • Sushi rice flavored with rice vinegar. White short-grain Japanese rice is preferred.
  • Nori seaweed sheets that provide color and oceanic umami flavor.
  • Soy sauce brushed on or served alongside for extra savoriness.
  • Wasabi to add spicy kick that complements the rich eel.
  • Pickled ginger or gari to refresh the palate.
  • Toasted sesame seeds that contribute nutty crunch.

How to Make Unagi Sushi at Home

Making restaurant-quality unagi sushi at home is easier than you think. Here are some tips:

  • Cook the unagi using the kabayaki method on an outdoor grill or broiler.
  • Fan the rice to bring it down to room temperature before shaping nigiri portions.
  • Wet your hands while handling rice to prevent sticking.
  • Wrap a strip of nori around sushi rice before topping with unagi.
  • Use a sharp knife and dip frequently in water when slicing unagi.
  • Brush on tare sauce to finish the nigiri for extra glaze.
  • Chill completed unagi sushi in the fridge briefly before serving.

Nutrition Profile of Unagi Sushi

Unagi sushi provides the following nutritional benefits:

  • High-quality protein from the eel fillet to support muscle growth and repair.
  • Heart-healthy fats like omega-3s from the eel and rice bran oil.
  • Vitamin A, calcium, iron, selenium found in the eel.
  • Complex carbohydrates from the rice for sustained energy.
  • Fiber, vitamins, and minerals from the nori seaweed.

So while relatively high in calories and fat compared to other sushi, the nutrition in unagi sushi is well worth it. Eating it in moderation allows you to gain essential nutrients.

Is Eating Unagi Sushi Healthy?

Yes, unagi sushi can absolutely be part of a healthy diet when enjoyed in moderation. Here are some key benefits of unagi sushi:

  • Provides lean, low-mercury protein unlike many fish.
  • Omega-3 fatty acids benefit heart health and brain function.
  • Kabayaki preparation avoids adding unhealthy fats or oils.
  • Rice in sushi has a low glycemic index to prevent blood sugar spikes.
  • Seaweed contains phytonutrients that are anti-inflammatory.
  • Umami flavor satisfies cravings so you eat less overall.

Just be mindful of portion sizes, as the calorie density can add up. But the healthy fats and proteins make unagi sushi a nutritious choice.

Popular Variations of Unagi Sushi

While nigiri style is the traditional presentation, there are many popular ways to enjoy unagi sushi:

  • Unagi donburi – Grilled eel over rice in a bowl.
  • Unagi maki – Rolled sushi with unagi and cucumber.
  • Gunkan unagi – Unagi nigiri wrapped with nori.
  • Unagi temaki – Hand roll with unagi and avocado.
  • Unakyu – Unagi wrapped sushi pressed in a box shape.
  • Unagi aburi – Blowtorched nigiri for smoky flavor.
  • Foie gras unagi – Luxury nigiri with foie gras and eel.

The sweet-savory glaze and tender texture of unagi complement so many fillings and styles of sushi.

Where to Find the Best Unagi Sushi

Quality unagi sushi relies on skilled preparation of the freshwater eel. Look for restaurants known for their unagi specialties. Top spots include:

  • Sushi counters in Japan using regional eel varieties.
  • Japanese restaurants in big cities like NYC, LA, and Vegas.
  • High-end omakase restaurants guided by expert chefs.
  • Traditional sushi bars owned by seasoned Japanese itamae.
  • Izakaya gastropubs offering grilled unagi kabayaki.

Seeking out authentic unagi sushi is worth it for the complex textures and flavors.

Vegetarian/Vegan Alternatives to Unagi Sushi?

For plant-based diners, there are several ways to recreate the look and taste of unagi sushi:

  • Use BBQ eggplant or mushrooms to mimic the lacquered eel.
  • Try smoked carrot “eel” for similar texture and color.
  • Sauce jackfruit in vegan tare sauce for sweet-savory flavor.
  • Roast shiitake mushrooms and glaze with soy sauce and brown sugar.
  • Grill slices of king oyster mushrooms for a meaty quality.
  • Serve sushi rice and nori with savory umami-packed sauces.

With clever use of vegetables and seasonings, you can craft inventive vegan unagi sushi.


Unagi sushi highlights ultra-fresh grilled freshwater eel glazed in a sweet soy sauce. The smoky, savory eel paired with vinegary rice and nori is an iconic Japanese specialty. While high in fat and calories, unagi sushi offers worthwhile nutrition like protein, healthy fats, and micronutrients. Made well, unagi sushi melts in your mouth with contrasting flavors and textures. This sublime sushi experience can now be enjoyed at home with the right preparation of the unagi eel and sushi rice. Even vegan versions are possible to capture the essence of unagi. Seek out authentic unagi sushi when dining out for a truly memorable Japanese culinary experience.