Japanese Sushi Eel “Unagi” | What it tastes like +Unadon recipe

by Joost Nusselder | Updated:  August 26, 2020
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Unagi is Japanese sushi eel or ‘freshwater eel’ and it is an essential part of Japanese cuisine. Unagi has a mouthwatering taste, especially when marinated and grilled.

In addition to this, Japanese sushi eel is particularly nutritious and comes with numerous health benefits.

If you have ever visited a Japanese sushi restaurant, there is a possibility that you have seen most of the sushi rolls have an ingredient known as unagi, also known as Japanese eel.

a tray of eel meat

Even though an eel has a close resemblance to a snake, it is just a particular type of fish—and a very tasty one.

Many people have a natural repulsion to the thought of eating eel—and this also includes most of the passionate sushi lovers. They always shy away from the eel.

However, when you come across a normal eel dish, you will be surprised that it resembles any other fish meal.

And, when you happen to taste the soft meat of Japanese eel, you are likely to change your whole idea of eating unagi.

What does Japanese eel taste like?

Well, if you have ever eaten unagi, you are aware of its subtle, yet sweet flavor, which is a bit chewy, and somehow reminiscent of raw salmon.

The taste of eel resembles salmon a bit

Other people say that its taste has a close resemblance to the taste of catfish.

But, what you need to note is that unagi always has a good taste when served alongside an accompanying sauce or seasoning.

The combination of eel, rice, and other sushi ingredients is delicious. 

The important thing to note is that eel’s blood is toxic and poisonous therefore you should never eat raw eel as it can kill you.

The eel in Japanese dishes is always cooked. 

One thing you need to note about unagi is that readily absorbs the flavors of different sauces that are drizzled over it or even served on its side for dipping.

One of the most popular condiments is eel sauce.

Eel will take on the taste of sauces used

This sauce is thick, sweet, and savory, which gives unagi an amazing taste of umami, as well as other maki rolls.

Also, you will need to note that the taste of unagi can be affected by how it is prepared and served.

Smoked, deep-fried, or grilled methods are some of the most popular preparations of eel.

In Japan, unagi is an important part of the traditional cuisine—to the extent that there is a special day that’s dedicated to unagi.

It’s called Doyo no Ushi no Hi and it’s a day each summer when people eat eel dishes. 

Traditional unagi dishes are usually butter-fried, marinated, and then grilled, or served on top of the donburi rice bowl.

Unakyu or eel sushi rolls are also increasingly popular at restaurants. 

Where does sushi eel come from?

Most sushi eel comes from eel farms. However, the best-tasting eel comes from the wild – meaning freshwater or seawater.

Japan is the top consumer of eels. Most of the eel is raised on fish farms around the country because the demand is so high. 

Specialty dishes rely on the wild, fresh eel. These eels are called ‘glass eels’ and they are caught while young in coastal waters and rivers.

The eels are a threatened species so conservation efforts are underway. 

In the wild, eels eat shrimp, crustaceans, aquatic insects, and small fish. They have a healthy diet and are considered an overall healthy food. 

Eel Sushi Rolls – Unakyu

When we talk about sushi eel, we are describing unagi which is the term for freshwater eel. But did you know that sushi rolls with eel are also popular?

So, you’re probably wondering if eel is a sushi fish? Well, yes. The Japanese use eel to make sushi.

The process is the same as with other types of fish and seafood, the only difference is that eel is always cooked and never served raw. 

The sushi roll version of unagi is called Unakyu and it is a sushi roll with well-cooked eel and cucumber, usually served with tare sauce

In eel sushi, chefs prefer to use freshwater eel (unagi) most of the time. In some cases, they use anago, which refers to seawater eel. 

Also read: all you wanted to know about sushi grade tuna

What are the health benefits of unagi?

As we highlighted earlier, unagi comes with tons of health benefits, as well as nutritional values.

The fact that the Japanese consume unagi is probably another reason why Japan is one of the healthiest nations across the globe.

Health benefits of eel

First, you need to note that unagi contains a wide variety of minerals and vitamins, and this includes vitamins A, D, E, B1, B2, B12, and phosphorus.

Phosphorous is essential to a healthy body since it assists in balancing the PH levels in our bodies.

In addition, it assists in improving metabolism and digestion, and also allows our bodies to absorb minerals better.

Moreover, the eel has a high content of omega-3. It helps improve blood pressure, reduces cholesterol, and even reduces the risks of arthritis and diabetes.

Unagi is low in sodium, high in potassium, and doesn’t contain any sugar. Unagi is a low-calorie food.

One piece of eel has about 100-300 calories, depending on how it’s cooked. If you eat it as nigiri (eel on rice balls), you’ll double the calories. 

In addition to these health benefits, unagi has other health benefits that are more specific to women.

These benefits include:

Here are a few recipes for Japanese eel.

Tasty and nutritious Japanese sushi eel unagi recipe

Sushi Eel Unadon recipe

This is a classic Japanese dish, which consists of steamed rice, which is topped up with grilled eel fillets that are glazed with a sweetened soy-based sauce, also known as tare, and then caramelized over a charcoal fire (preferably).
Course Main Course
Cuisine Japanese
Keyword Eel, Rice
Prep Time 10 minutes
Cook Time 25 minutes
Total Time 35 minutes
Servings 4 people
Author Joost Nusselder
Cost $25

Ingredients

  • 2 fillets (320g) Unagi (eel)
  • 1 Japanese sansho pepper for topping (optional)
  • 4 cups white rice

Unagi sauce (tare)

  • ¼ cup soy sauce
  • ¼ cup mirin
  • tbsp brown sugar
  • tbsp sake

Instructions

Making the unagi sauce

  • In a small saucepan, add your sake, brown sugar, and mirin, and then turn on the heat to the medium setting, and then whisk your mixture.
    Add mirin and sake with brown sugar for unagi sauce
  • Add the soy sauce and allow it to boil. Once it has boiled, reduce the heat to a low setting and then allow it to simmer for an additional 10 minutes. As you come to the end of the cooking, you should be able to see more bubbles.
  • Now, you can turn off your stove and allow the sauce to cool—you will realize that the sauce has thickened as it cools. This sauce can be kept in an airtight jar for 2 weeks—but it must be refrigerated.
    Preserve the unagi sauce in an airtight jar

Preparing the unagi

  • First, you will need to preheat your oven to broil—550 degrees F or 290 degrees C for around 3 minutes. As your oven preheats, cut your unagi in half or third—this should depend on the size of your serving bowls.
  • Cook the rice in a cooking pot or rice steamer for about 8 minutes.
  • Line your baking sheet with an aluminum foil, and then brush a light layer of oil—you can place your unagi on the baking sheet.
    a tray of eel meat
  • Place the baking sheet on the mid rack of the oven and then broil on high heat for around 5 to 7 minutes—you don’t need to flip.
  • After the 7 minutes, take out the unagi, and then brush it over with the sauce.
  • Continue to broil for an additional 30 to 60 seconds or until you see some bubbles on top of your unagi.
  • Serve your cooked rice in a bowl and then brush or pour unagi sauce on top of the rice. Then, serve unagi on top of the rice and brush or pour more unagi sauce. You can also sprinkle some sansho—but this is optional.
    Serve the unadon immediately
  • Serve immediately.

Here are a few of the ingredients you might need to buy to make this dish:

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Unadon is a short word for unagi (eel) and donburi (rice bowl dish).

The recipe requires a preparation time of 10 minutes and a cooking time of 10 minutes.

If you love Japanese food, your mouth will definitely water as you go through this recipe.

Recipe notes:

This is for the unagi sauce/tare: this is a third of the original recipe since it’s meant for 2 fillets.

Here is the original unagi sauce recipe

Ingredients

Directions

Re-heating your sauce: use a frying pan or an oven broiler. In case you don’t have an oven, consider using an oven toaster. 

Also read: teppanyaki seafood recipe that’ll make your mouth water

Unagi don recipe

a tray of japanese food

Ingredients

For the sauce

You will also need:

Directions

  1. To prepare the sauce, you will need to mix the sake and mirin in a small saucepan, and then allow them to boil. Once they have boiled, reduce the heat, add sugar and stir until it has completely dissolved. Then, add the soy sauce and allow it to boil. Reduce the heat and allow the sauce to simmer for around 10 minutes or until it thickens. When done, turn off the heat and then set it aside to cool.
  2. As your sauce cools, start preparing and cooking your rice—you can use your preferred rice preparation method. One of the recommended methods of cooking 200 g rice is to boil it with 260 ml of water—once you have washed it under cold running water.
  3. Next, preheat your grill to around 250 degrees C. Mostly, eel fillets come sliced in half lengthwise. So, you will just need to cut the eel fillets in half width-wise so that they can fit on top of the rice bowl.
  4. Next, line your baking with an aluminum foil. Place the fillets on top of the baking sheet and then brush them with some vegetable oil. Put the baking sheet on your oven, and then grill for around 5 to 7 minutes, or they have turned brown.
  5. Remove your fillets from the oven and then brush them with the unagi sauce carefully—and make sure that you spare some sauce for later use. Put the fillets back on the grill and grill for an additional minute.
  6. When serving, add a portion of your cooked rice in an empty bowl. Brush some unagi sauce on top of the rice, and then put some unagi fillets on top of the rice.

Additional tips:

Grilled UNagi Delicacy

There are many different ways to prepare unagi. Grilled eel is the most popular delicacy during the annual ‘Day of the Ox’ summer celebration.

The ‘Day of the Ox’ (Doyo no Ushi) marks the hottest day of the summer. Legend has it that getting through the summer heat requires lots of stamina.

The tail of the eel provides stamina for men. It contains many nutrients and hormones that increase a person’s stamina and vitality. 

Chefs use only high-quality ingredients to make grilled unagi. It is more expensive compared to other eel dishes because they use more expensive eel.

For grilled unagi, chefs prefer to use wild eel as opposed to farmed eels because the meat has a superior taste. Each eel has a size somewhere between 30 to 50 cm. 

What you’ll note about this dish is that it has a crunchy exterior and a tender and succulent interior. People love this combination between crunchy and soft. 

How is grilled unagi prepared?

Chefs want to achieve a distinct rich flavor, so they grill the eel over hot charcoal. The first step is to grill the eel until it’s cooked. Then they steam the eel.

This process removes any excess fat. Then they cover the eel in a sweet-tasting sauce. Finally, they grill the meat one more time – this process gives the meat that crispiness. 

Read more: these are all the different types of sushi you need to know

Joost Nusselder, the founder of Bite My Bun is a content marketer, dad and loves trying out new food with Japanese food at the heart of his passion, and together with his team he's been creating in-depth blog articles since 2016 to help loyal readers with recipes and cooking tips.