Japanese sushi eel “unagi” | What it tastes like + unadon recipes

by Joost Nusselder | Updated:  January 11, 2022

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

Unagi is Japanese sushi eel or “freshwater eel” and it’s 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.

a tray of eel meat

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

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

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

And when you taste the soft meat of Japanese eel, you’re likely to change your whole idea of eating unagi!

What does Japanese eel taste like?

Well, if you’ve ever eaten unagi, then you’re 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 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. 

An important thing you need to know is that eel’s blood is toxic and poisonous, so you should never eat raw eel, as it can kill you. This is why the eel in Japanese dishes is always cooked. 

Unagi readily absorbs the flavors of different sauces that are drizzled over it or even served on the 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, the taste of unagi can be affected by how it’s prepared and served. Smoked, deep-fried, or grilled are some of the most popular preparation methods for eel. Traditional unagi dishes are usually butter-fried, marinated, and then grilled, or served on top of the donburi rice bowl.

In Japan, unagi is an important part of the traditional cuisine, to the extent that there’s 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. 

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 wild, fresh eel. These are called “glass eels” and they’re caught in coastal waters and rivers while young.

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’re 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’s always cooked and never served raw. 

The sushi roll version of unagi is called unakyu and it’s 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 good nutritional values.

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

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, eel has a high amount of omega-3 fatty acids. 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.

It’s 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:

  • Reducing menstrual pain
  • Reducing wrinkles and improving skin health
  • Slowing down tumor growth
  • Lowering the risks of breast cancer
  • Improving blood flow to the brain
  • Boosting memory
  • Reducing any chances of dementia

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’s more expensive compared to other eel dishes because they use more expensive eels.

For grilled unagi, chefs prefer to use wild eels 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 notice 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.

Next, 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

Check out our new cookbook

Bitemybun's family recipes with complete meal planner and recipe guide.

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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.