Unagi sauce, also known as eel sauce, is a sweet, thick, and sticky sauce commonly used in Japanese cuisine. It has a lovely glossy appearance and a distinctive savory-sweet flavor profile. Unagi sauce is a popular condiment and sauce served alongside sushi, sashimi, nigiri, maki rolls, and other Japanese dishes.
Unagi sauce is made from just a few simple ingredients, but it packs a flavor punch. The main ingredients in traditional unagi sauce are soy sauce, mirin, and sake. Soy sauce provides saltiness, mirin contributes sweetness, and sake gives a punch of umami flavor. Other ingredients like dashi stock, sugar, and MSG are also sometimes added to enhance the flavor.
When these ingredients are combined and reduced through simmering, the resulting liquid transforms into a thick, glossy, and beautifully lacquered sauce. The sauce has a complex yet harmonious blend of sweet and salty flavors, with a subtle hint of alcohol from the mirin and sake. It provides the perfect contrasting component to rich, savory eel and works well with other seafood too.
How Is Unagi Sauce Made?
Authentic unagi sauce is made by combining the core ingredients – soy sauce, mirin, sake – in specific proportions and simmering the mixture to achieve the desired thickness and flavor concentration. Here is a basic breakdown of how traditional unagi sauce is prepared:
- Soy sauce – Typically an equal part or slightly more soy sauce is used compared to mirin. The soy sauce provides the saltiness and umami backbone.
- Mirin – An equal amount or slightly less mirin is used compared to soy sauce. Mirin gives unagi sauce its essential sweetness.
- Sake – A smaller amount of sake is added, typically half as much as the soy sauce or mirin. Sake contributes extra umami savoriness and lightens the texture.
- Sugar – A small amount of sugar is sometimes added to balance flavors and add a subtle mellow sweetness.
- Dashi – For extra umami punch, a few tablespoons of dashi stock may be included.
- MSG – A pinch of MSG is optionally added for even more savory umami flavor.
- Simmering – After combining all ingredients, the sauce is slowly simmered uncovered until thickened and reduced by nearly half. This concentrates the flavors.
- Straining – The finished sauce is strained to remove any sediment and achieve a perfectly smooth, glossy texture.
The specific ingredients amounts can be adjusted based on personal taste preferences for saltiness, sweetness, and savoriness. But this basic method yields the rich, glossy unagi sauce that perfectly complements seared eel.
What Are the Ingredients in Unagi Sauce?
Here are some of the most essential ingredients found in traditional homemade unagi sauce:
- Soy sauce – The salty, umami-rich soy sauce forms the flavor base. Both regular soy sauce and “usukuchi” light-colored soy sauce are commonly used.
- Mirin – The sweet cooking wine called mirin provides sweetness and also contributes to the sheen. Hon-mirin has some alcohol content while amakuchi mirin is non-alcoholic.
- Sake – A small amount of sake or rice wine adds complexity, umami, and subtle alcohol notes.
- Dashi – The umami-packed Japanese dashi stock enhances savoriness. Dashi is made from kombu seaweed and dried bonito flakes.
- Sugar – White granulated sugar balances salty and sweet flavors. Some recipes use brown sugar for extra molasses notes.
- MSG – Monosodium glutamate is used sparingly to boost the savory umami taste even more. This is optional.
The specific proportions vary, but a basic ratio would be 1 cup soy sauce, 3/4 cup mirin, and 1/4 cup sake as a starting point. Additional seasonings like sesame oil, garlic, ginger, or cornstarch may also be included for more flavor.
What Does Unagi Sauce Taste Like?
Unagi sauce has a complex yet beautifully balanced flavor that is hard to describe exactly. Here is an overview of the main taste sensations:
- Sweet – Mirin cooking wine provides an essential sweetness, which is balanced by salty and umami flavors. The sweetness is a touch subtle, not overly sugary.
- Salty – Soy sauce gives the sauce a prominent salty, savory quality. The saltiness is robust but not overpowering.
- Umami – Dashi stock and sake offer a strong umami punch, while MSG boosts it even further. This gives great mouth-filling savoriness.
- Savory – The sauce has a rich, savory flavor overall thanks to the blend of salty, sweet, and umami tastes. This makes it the perfect match for unagi eel.
- Glossy – The sauce’s thickness and glossy sheen provide a lovely viscous, lacquered mouthfeel as you taste it.
- Aromatic – Notes of garlic, ginger, sesame, and soybeans round out the aroma for extra depth.
A simple way to describe the taste is a perfect balance of sweet and salty, with pleasant savory umami flavors and an enticingly thick, glossy texture.
Where Can You Buy Unagi Sauce?
Authentic unagi sauce can be purchased from several sources:
1. Supermarkets and Grocery Stores
Major supermarkets and grocery stores often carry bottled unagi sauce in the Asian foods section, near other popular condiments like soy sauce and sesame oil. Look for well-known brands.
2. Asian Markets
Specialty Asian food stores and Asian supermarkets will have the biggest selection of unagi sauces. You can find Japanese brands as well as versions from other Asian countries. The prices at Asian grocers are very affordable too.
3. Online Retailers
Websites like Amazon.com offer a wide variety of unagi sauce brands available for home delivery. This is a convenient option if you can’t easily access an Asian market. Check reviews to find top-rated ones.
4. Specialty Food Stores
Some gourmet food shops, specialty import stores, and restaurants may also retail bottled unagi sauce for sale. Call ahead to check availability. These tend to be pricier but high-quality.
5. Directly from Restaurants or Manufacturers
You may be able to purchase ready-made unagi sauce directly from a sushi restaurant or manufacturer. But minimum order sizes often apply, so this works best for large quantities.
With so many options, it’s easy to find bottled unagi sauce to keep stocked in your pantry. Always check the label for ingredients and the expiration date.
How to Choose a Good Quality Unagi Sauce
When shopping for prepared unagi sauce, keep these tips in mind to select a top-quality product:
- Ingredients – Check the label and look for traditional ingredients like soy sauce, mirin, sake, and dashi. Avoid corn syrup or excessive thickeners.
- Appearance – Quality unagi sauce has a glossy sheen from natural reduction. Avoid separates or dull-looking sauces.
- Aroma – Give it a sniff and make sure it smells pleasingly savory-sweet when you open the bottle.
- Taste – Small differences in sweetness, saltiness, and savoriness vary. Sample a bit to find your flavor preference.
- Consistency – Good unagi sauce is thick and coats back of spoon well. It shouldn’t be watery or have large sediment particles.
- Brand reputation – Opt for well-known Japanese brands like Mitoku, Yamasa, Kabuto, or Otafuku for reliably authentic flavor.
- Price – Boutique imported brands can be pricier. Mass-market versions offer comparable quality for a budget.
With a focus on traditional ingredients and the right glossy, thick consistency, you’re sure to end up with a great-tasting unagi sauce.
What Are Some Popular Brands of Unagi Sauce?
Some top Japanese brands of unagi sauce known for quality and authenticity include:
- Yamasa – One of the most popular brands. They offer different sauce options like regular, low-sodium, and additive-free.
- Mitoku – Specializes in artisanal Japanese sauces. Their unagi sauce contains only traditional ingredients.
- Kabuto – A leading brand for premium bottled sauces and condiments used by chefs.
- Otafuku – A 100-year-old Japanese sauce company. Their unagi sauce has won taste awards.
- Kikkoman – Famous for soy sauce, they also produce a well-liked unagi sauce product.
- Bourbon – Another top Japanese brand, especially known for their unagi sauce gift sets.
- Wanjashan – A popular Chinese brand of unagi sauce, with more garlic and ginger.
- Dragonfly – Offers vegan-friendly unagi sauces in original and spicy flavors.
With any of these quality brands, you can count on excellent, authentic taste from a bottled unagi sauce.
How to Store Unagi Sauce After Opening
To maintain the best flavor and texture after opening your bottle of unagi sauce, follow these storage tips:
- Refrigeration – Keep the sauce refrigerated at all times for food safety once opened.
- Airtight container – Transfer to a clean airtight glass jar or container to prevent smells from absorbing.
- Shelf life – Properly stored, unagi sauce will keep for about 2-3 months refrigerated.
- Consistency – Over time, the sauce can thicken more. Stir well before use if needed.
- Discard if spoiled – Check for mold, smell, or texture changes indicating spoilage and discard if found.
- No freeze/thaw cycles – Avoid freezing unagi sauce as ice crystals will ruin the texture upon thawing.
With proper refrigeration and an airtight container, opened unagi sauce will retain its quality and can be conveniently kept on hand for flavoring all kinds of Japanese recipes.
Can You Make Your Own Unagi Sauce at Home?
Absolutely! While ready-made bottled unagi sauce is widely available, it’s also quite simple to DIY at home. Here is an overview of how to make unagi sauce from scratch:
- Ingredients – Gather key ingredients like soy sauce, mirin, sake, dashi, sugar, and seasonings. Use traditional Japanese ones if possible.
- Proportions – Combine in suitable ratios. A common baseline is 1 cup soy sauce, 3/4 cup mirin, 1/4 cup sake.
- Simmer – Pour mixture into a saucepan and simmer over medium heat for 10-15 minutes until thickened substantially.
- Strain – Pass the sauce through a fine mesh strainer to remove any impurities.
- Bottle – Transfer to a sterilized glass bottle or jar while still hot for easy pouring.
- Cool and refrigerate – Allow sauce to cool fully before capping tightly and refrigerating.
- Adjust flavor – Taste and tweak seasoning or ingredients to suit your preferences.
Part of the fun is customizing your homemade unagi sauce to get just the right personal balance of salty, sweet and savory you love.
What Dishes Can You Make with Unagi Sauce?
Unagi sauce is delicious drizzled over all kinds of Japanese cuisine. Here are some popular ways it can be used:
- Brush over grilled or broiled unagi (eel) as a glaze or dipping sauce.
- Mix into sushi rice for extra flavor.
- Drizzle over sashimi slices of fish like salmon or tuna.
- Use as a sauce for tempura seafood and vegetables.
- Add to udon or soba noodle soups and stir fries.
- Include as a condiment for rice bowls like chirashi sushi.
- Use as a glaze or sauce for chicken, pork, or tofu instead of unagi.
- Drizzle sparingly over poke bowls, salads, or avocado toast.
- Mix with mayonnaise as a dip for fried foods like gyoza potstickers.
With its addictive sweet-salty flavor, a little unagi sauce can elevate virtually any savory Japanese dish imaginable!
Is There a Substitute for Unagi Sauce in Recipes?
If you don’t have access to bottled or homemade unagi sauce, some suitable substitutions can mimic its sweet and salty flavor profile:
- Teriyaki sauce – The most direct swap for unagi sauce. Mix 2 parts teriyaki with 1 part honey or agave nectar.
- Hoisin sauce – Adds sweet and savory notes similar to unagi sauce.
- Plum sauce – Provides fruity sweet/tart notes that work well.
- Sweet chili sauce – Offers a good balance of sweet and heat.
- Honey + soy sauce – Equal parts honey and regular soy sauce combine sweet and salt.
- Maple syrup + tamari – For a simple DIY stand-in, mix maple syrup with reduced-sodium tamari soy sauce.
- Brown sugar + aminos – Brown sugar dissolved into soy-free coconut aminos is a vegan option.
While no substitution will be an exact match, these sauce combinations can substitute reasonably well for recipes calling for unagi sauce.
Unagi sauce is a beloved condiment in Japanese cuisine, valued for its glossy appearance and balanced sweet-salty taste. This unique sauce is made by simmering soy sauce, mirin, sake, and other flavorful ingredients into a luscious glaze. Unagi sauce can be purchased ready-made from Asian grocers or specialty stores, but it’s also easy to whip up homemade. A little bit of this umami-rich sauce goes a long way in adding flavor to sushi, noodles, kabobs, rice dishes, and more. Although bottled eel sauce is common, unagi sauce also pairs wonderfully with chicken, pork, fish and vegetarian foods too. With its harmonious blend of aromas and flavors, it’s no wonder this versatile sauce is a staple in Japanese kitchens. Whether buying or making your own, unagi sauce is a must-have pantry item for anyone who enjoys Asian cuisine.