Eel sauce may not be the most popular condiment, but we have a feeling that is about to change in a short while. This sauce is gaining traction in Western countries at the speed of light!
But why? Well, despite the misleading name, eel sauce is a delicious fish-free Asian condiment that can be used on virtually anything! And, the way you can incorporate it into your recipes is also endless.
But, what exactly does this sauce taste like? Eel sauce is very savory and meaty (umami). It has strong salty flavors with milder sweet ones. Imagine BBQ sauce and hoisin sauce combined – that is the closest example we have.
In today’s post, we will explore the many aspects of this underrated sauce including what it is, how it’s made, and how it should be used.
We have also included some fun facts about this sauce that will hopefully convince you to at least give it a try!
What Is Eel Sauce? Does It Actually Contain Eels?
Eel sauce (we love this one from Otafuku) is a relatively new ingredient to people outside of Asia.
But, in Japan, it is a relatively common ingredient that is found nationwide.
Now, there seems to be a lot of controversy surrounding what exactly eel sauce is.
The Americanized version of this sauce takes inspiration from a Japanese sauce called nitsume. The traditional way of making nitsume includes boiling eels in a broth liquid to ultimately create an eel broth. So, nitsume does, in a way, contain eel.
However, because of accessibility issues, most other countries don’t have access to Japanese eels (even local eels). So, instead, a different method was used to mimic the traditional eel sauce.
Today, most eel sauces don’t contain eel. In fact, they can even be vegan, like the one we’ve linked above. But, they can still accompany eel dishes and many other fish recipes. This even includes sushi!
Ingredients Used To Make Eel Sauce
Now, if Westernized eel sauce doesn’t contain any eels, what is it made of? There are many different types of traditional eel sauces, so naturally, there will be various Western recipes too.
Most recipes include at the very least these four ingredients; sake, mirin, soy sauce, and sugar.
You can add some other ingredients, but these four will make the perfect base recipe that can be used as-is. Other ingredients many recipes include are eel eggs and fish stock.
Some even include herbs, but we would stay away from these entirely. Herbs will make it more difficult to pair with many dishes. Not to mention their flavor will likely be over-powdered by the base.
Once the ingredients are combined, the mixture is often reduced over low heat to give it a thicker consistency and more savory flavor.
Here’s an easy recipe to make your own eel sauce from Howcast on YouTube.
What Does Eel Sauce Taste Like?
As we have mentioned, despite the name, most eel sauces don’t contain any eel. These sauces are very savory and umami. Imagine combining some barbecue sauce and hoisin sauce. That is almost the flavor of your average Western eel sauce.
When made using the correct ratios, you can expect to immediately pick up on some sweet and salty flavors with a hint of smokiness to them. And, as we have mentioned, it is very umami (meaty).
This makes it a good pairing with virtually any type of fish dish. But, you would be surprised how well it goes with beef, pork, eggs, and vegetables too. We are big fans of drizzling some homemade eel sauce over our roasted vegetable mix.
Furthermore, if you’d like, you can simply use it as a dipping sauce on a platter or a dressing for salads. It’s that versatile!
Now, if eel sauce doesn’t contain any eel, why does it still sometimes taste fishy? As we have mentioned, some eel sauce recipes do include fish stock in them. So, you may still get a fishy flavor coming through.
If you don’t like the flavor of fish, then make sure your recipe or store-bought product doesn’t contain any eel or other fish products.
Other Characteristics Of Eel Sauce
Eel sauce has a very dark brown color, almost like soy sauce. This makes sense because soy sauce tends to make up the bulk of the recipe.
It also has a very thick and almost sticky texture but is completely smooth and lump-free. This texture comes from the fact that the base ingredients were combined and reduced.
When making eel sauce at home, you can alter the consistency. But, the thick one really works well for most functions. And, the flavor is much more concentrated this way.
Common Flavor Pairings With Eel Sauce
Because most eel sauces today don’t contain any fish products, they are much more versatile. If you do have a product or a recipe with fish stock or eel reduction in it, then it is best to limit the usage to fish-based recipes.
Now, regular eel sauces today (without any fish products) are very versatile. Naturally, they will pair well with fish dishes, especially eel. The sauce has a savory umami flavor that goes great with strongly flavored fish and crustaceans too.
This is also a common dipping or drizzling sauce for sushi. Although soy sauce is traditionally used, more establishments have added eel sauce to their menu as an option.
Then, you can also use it with beef and lamb. Although the pairings may not be completely traditional, again, because of the lack of fishiness, they will work just fine.
Eel sauce also makes a fantastic addition to vegetables. We like to pair it with either those with a natural meaty flavor or filler vegetables. Filler vegetables are carrots, onions, celery, and potato – anything that doesn’t have a particularly unique flavor but is still tasty and nutritional.
Your meaty vegetables include eggplant, jack fruit, beets, cauliflower, and mushrooms (yes, we know they are technically fungi).
Considering this sauce is so versatile and pairs well with almost anything, it means you can add it to almost any dish.
This includes pizza, pasta, burgers, chicken wings, steaks, potato wedges, and loads more. Trust us, we have personally tried it on these!
How To Use This Sauce
Because eel sauce has been cooked during the production process, it means that it can be eaten as-is. So, you can simply serve it as a salad dressing or dipping sauce, or incorporate it into other uncooked sauce recipes.
But, it can also be used as a marinade. You don’t have to add other ingredients if you are already happy with the flavor of the sauce. But, if you want to play around with some flavors, you can add some spices and herbs.
Then, you can also use it as a basting sauce. But, use low heat and be mindful of the amount of salt you are adding to your meat. Again, it pairs well with fish, beef, and pork.
Eel sauce is also a great way to add more flavor to soups and stews. You should just replace any salt that the recipe calls for. Otherwise, the soy sauce will make the entire dish too salty.
And finally, this sauce is great for a vegetable or meat stir-fry. You can even add it to almost any Asian noodle dish you want to!
This sauce, as we keep emphasizing, is extremely versatile. Both in where you can use it, how you can pair it, and how to incorporate it into recipes.
So, do yourself a favor and either go buy some eel sauce right now, or find a recipe that sounds good to you. Trust us, this sauce will last quite some time and will help you spice things up in the kitchen!
Is eel sauce the same as teriyaki sauce?
Eel sauce and teriyaki sauce are often confused with each other, but they are not the same. Eel sauce is less sweet than teriyaki and simultaneously saltier.
Another key difference is that teriyaki sauce uses brown sugar while eel sauce uses white. This gives teriyaki a more caramel-like flavor.
Is eel sauce the same as fish sauce?
These two sauces are also not the same thing. Fish sauce is more of a concentrate made from fermented and salted fish.
You could say that traditional eel sauce (made from boiled eel) is a type of fish sauce. But today, most eel sauces you will find in-store don’t have any fish products.
Where can you buy eel sauce today?
Eel sauce is much easier to find today than even a couple of years ago. You will definitely be able to find it online at sites like amazon. But, we have even found Kikkoman Eel Sauce at Walmart. Again, always make sure that you buy the type of eel sauce you want.
What is unagi?
Many people wrongly refer to eel sauce as unagi. The correct alternative name for eel sauce is unagi no tare. Unagi is simply the term used to refer to freshwater Japanese eel, not the actual sauce.
Unagi Don is the term used to refer to grilled eel, on which eel sauce (unagi no tare) is often used.