What Is Eel Sauce?

Soy sauce and ponzu do quite a bit of heavy lifting in the sushi sauce game. But there’s a bigger and bolder bad boy that puts all those other sauces to shame. I’m of course talking about eel sauce. What is eel sauce and what’s in it? Eels? If not, why is it called eel sauce? Hang onto your eels, because we’re about to get some (eel) saucy answers.  

What is eel sauce?

Let’s just get this out there right now, because I know everyone is wondering: No, there are no eels in eel sauce. So, why is it called eel sauce then? Because it’s commonly used to glaze eel in Japanese cooking. Unagi (freshwater eel) is commonly cooked kabayaki style; that’s where a fish is gutted, scaled, deboned, and cut into squares, then skewered, dipped in a marinade and grilled. For unagi, that marinade is eel sauce. Eel sauce is sometimes called kabayaki sauce, unagi no tare, or nitsume. Word on the street is that way back in the day, the original nitsume was made with a broth of boiled down eels. But you won’t find any eels in eel sauce these days.

What is in eel sauce? How is eel sauce made?

Eel sauce can vary and many chefs have their own special recipes. But for the most part, eel sauce is usually made by mixing soy sauce, sake, mirin (Japanese rice wine), and sugar together and reducing over heat. The sauce should thicken into a thick soy sauce consistency.

What does eel sauce taste like?

A well done eel sauce should taste sweet, salty, a little smoky, and have a rich umami flavor. 

Is eel sauce vegetarian? Is eel sauce vegan? 

Yep, most eel sauce is both vegan and vegetarian. But remember, a lot of chefs make their own, so ingredients can vary. It’s always best to ask. Most pre-packaged eel sauce is vegan. You may find an eel sauce that is made with bonito flakes, which would firmly put that sauce in the not vegetarian or vegan camp as bonito is a fish product. 

Does eel sauce have gluten? 

Sometimes it does and sometimes it doesn’t. Again, you’re going to need to ask whoever is making it or check the label. Eel sauce is usually made with soy sauce and soy sauce contains gluten. However, eel sauce is occasionally made with tamari, which is essentially gluten free soy sauce. 

About the Author

Will Morgan

Will Morgan, a freelance contributor to Sporked, is an L.A. based writer, actor, and sketch comedy guy. Originally from Houston, TX, he strongly believes in the superiority of breakfast tacos to breakfast burritos. Will traveled the world as one of those people that did yoyo shows at elementary school assemblies, always making a point to find local and regional foods to explore in whatever place he was, even in rinky-dink towns like Tilsonberg, ON. Will spends his birthdays at Benihana’s. Let him know if can make it.

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