Nitsume eel sauce: salty sweet sushi sauce recipe & substitutes

by Joost Nusselder | Updated:  January 17, 2022

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If you’ve never heard of eel sauce, its name alone will probably raise a bunch of questions. You may wonder: Is it made from eel? Is it used to flavor eel?

Well, to answer those questions, no it’s not made with eel and yes, it’s used to flavor eel; particularly, sushi made with eel.

So then, you may be wondering: How does eel sauce taste? What is it made from and how is it used?

Eel Sauce nitsume explained

Well, read on for answers to those questions and more!

But first, watch this interesting video on eel sauce:

Homemade Eel Sauce recipe

Homemade nitsume eel sauce recipe

Joost Nusselder
Reading a recipe can be helpful in understanding exactly what eel sauce is. Here's a recipe that makes for a foolproof way for you to prepare this exotic sauce right in the comfort of your own home.
5 from 1 vote
Prep Time 1 min
Cook Time 15 mins
Total Time 16 mins
Course Side Dish
Cuisine Japanese
Servings 4 people
Calories 120 kcal

Ingredients
  

  • ½ cup soy sauce
  • ½ cup sugar
  • ½ cup mirin (Japanese sweet wine)

Instructions
 

  • Heat ingredients in a small saucepan over medium heat. Cook and stir until liquid is reduced to ¾ cup. Let it cool slightly so it becomes slightly sticky.
  • To get the consistency right, you can also add water or a cornstarch slurry. Keep in mind that the sauce will thicken as it cools, so it may be best to wait a bit before adding thickening or thinning agents.
  • Note: You can use any measurements you choose, as long as the ingredients are added in equal parts.
  • There are variations on eel sauce including nitsume, unagi, and kabayaki. Adding ingredients like rice vinegar, dashi, sake, or eel eggs can help you produce a taste that's similar to these variations. You can also add more sugar to produce a sweeter taste.

Nutrition

Calories: 120kcal
Keyword Eel, Sauce, Sushi
Tried this recipe?Let us know how it was!

Best eel sauce substitutes

If you don’t have eel sauce on hand and you need it for a recipe or meal, there are other sauces that can be used instead. Soy sauce and teriyaki sauce will both do in a pinch.

Variations like nitsume, unagi, and kabayaki can also work, according to a lot of people. But they’re actually all the same:

  • Nitsume is the Japanese term for eel sauce
  • Unagi is the term for the eel itself
  • Kabayaki is a way of preparing the eel and then usually, eel sauce is used to dress the eel. It’s not correct to use the term “kabayaki sauce” as a sauce in itself, as you’ll see the recipe here on TheSpruceEats is actually the same.

Other sauces with similar ingredients include ponzu sauce, tempura sauce, and sukiyaki sauce.

Eel sauce vs. ponzu

There are several sauces that are similar to eel sauce. One of these is ponzu sauce.

Like eel sauce, ponzu sauce is made with mirin. However, it also contains ingredients like rice vinegar (or use these substitutes!), katsuobushi flakes, and seaweed.

While the sauces don’t have the same taste, they’re used in similar applications. They can be used on sushi or as a condiment for fish and poultry.

Also check out these sweet and savory sushi sauces in our complete list

Eel sauce vs. teriyaki

Teriyaki is quite similar to eel sauce when considering its ingredients. Both use soy sauce, sugar, and water. Honey, ginger, and garlic powder are also often added to teriyaki to give it a unique flavor.

Eel sauce, on the other hand, has mirin to give it a distinctive taste.

While the 2 don’t taste exactly alike, they’re used in the same applications and make good substitutes for one another.

Eel sauce vs. hoisin

Hoisin sauce is similar to eel sauce in that it also has a soy sauce and sugar base.

However, it lacks mirin and has several other ingredients added, such as rice wine vinegar, sesame oil, garlic, and pepper. It can even have hot sauce added!

Although hoisin sauce can be used in the same applications eel sauce is used in, the taste is a lot more powerful.

Eel sauce vs. oyster sauce

While eel sauce isn’t actually made from eel, oyster sauce is made from oysters. It’s a combination of oyster’s natural juices mixed with sugar, salt, and sometimes cornstarch.

Oyster sauce is commonly used to flavor some types of sushi, but it can’t be used as a substitute for eel sauce in all recipes.

Nitsume vs. shoyu

Nitsume (eel sauce) isn’t the same as shoyu (soy sauce), although a large portion of the ingredients of nitsume is shoyu (around a third, to be exact). Nitsume has added mirin and sugar, which give it a very sweet taste and a much thicker consistency than salty shoyu alone.

Eel sauce origin

There isn’t much information available about the origins of eel sauce. But I’m fairly certain that it’s Japanese due to the fact that it contains ingredients that are used in many signature Japanese dishes.

It’s likely that it came about when cooks were coming up with recipes for barbecued eel.

The mix of ingredients was commonly agreed on as providing optimal flavor to eel, so eventually, it took on the name “eel sauce”.

In Japan, eel sauce is called “unagi no tare”, which means “sauce for eels”.

However, if you’re using the sauce on eel, you can simply refer to it as “tare”. This is because the eel part is already understood and can go without saying.

How to use eel sauce

Eel sauce can be used in a variety of ways. It’s commonly used to flavor sushi, particularly varieties with eel in them.

It also tastes great over grilled fish, freshwater and saltwater eel, noodles, and chicken.

You can also incorporate eel sauce into recipes like this grilled tomato salad with mozzarella and unagi sauce.

Ingredients:

  • ¼ cup soy sauce
  • ¼ cup mirin
  • ¼ cup sugar
  • 2 tbsp soju or sake
  • 1/3 cup mayonnaise
  • 1 tbsp fresh lime juice
  • Salt
  • 2 green unripe tomatoes cut into ¼” thick slices
  • 1 tbsp canola oil plus more for brushing
  • 2 cups yellow grape tomatoes with 1 cup halved
  • 1 lb fresh mozzarella cheese sliced and torn into bite-sized pieces
  • 3 tbsp thinly sliced basil
  • 3 tbsp chopped mint

Directions:

  1. Combine soy sauce, mirin, sugar, and soju or sake in a small saucepan. Bring to a boil and simmer over moderate heat, stirring until reduced to a ¼ cup (about 12 minutes). Let it cool completely, then whisk in mayonnaise, lime juice, and salt.
  2. Light a grill or preheat a grill pan. Brush tomatoes with oil and season with salt. Then grill over heat until lightly charred (about 4 minutes). Transfer to a plate to cool and then cut into quarters.
  3. Toss whole grape tomatoes into a perforated grill pan with one tbsp of oil and season with salt. Grill over high heat, tossing occasionally until lightly charred (about 2 minutes). Let it cool slightly.
  4. Toss mozzarella and all tomatoes on a platter and drizzle with ½ of the unagi sauce. Scatter with basil and mint. Serve with remaining unagi sauce on the side.

Eel sauce nutrition information

When following the recipe above, here’s a breakdown of the nutrition eel sauce offers:

  • Calories per serving: 120
  • Protein: 1.4g
  • Carbohydrates 24.5g
  • Dietary fiber: 0.2g
  • Sugars: 23.3g
  • Fat 0g
  • Cholesterol: 0g
  • Niacin: 0.8mg
  • Folate: 3 mcg
  • Calcium: 5.8mg
  • Iron: 0.4mg
  • Magnesium: 9.2mg
  • Potassium: 46.6 mg
  • Sodium: 1202.6 mg

Best eel sauce brands

There are quite a few brands that sell eel sauce. Here are a few that I recommend.

Otojay eel sauce

Best for sashimi: Otajoy Nitsume Eel sauce

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Otojay makes an eel sauce that has no fat, no preservatives, and no artificial flavors. It’s made in the USA and it’s a great topper for sushi and steamed rice.

Shirakiku eel sauce

Shirakiku eel sauce

(view more images)

This brand makes a non-GMO eel sauce that has a sweet, salty, and rich taste. The twist cap makes it easy to apply to your dishes.

Kikkoman eel sauce

Kikkoman eel sauce

(view more images)

You really can’t miss when you purchase from the brand Kikkoman. They’ve established themselves as a trusted supplier of Japanese foods. They make an unagi sauce that’s rich and flavorful.

Nitsume eel sauce FAQs

Because this sauce might be something new to your diet, you might be wondering if it’ll fit your current dietary needs. Here are some FAQs for you.

What does eel sauce taste like?

Eel sauce has been described as having a combination of flavors that are characterized as sweet, salty, savory, and umami.

The savory and salty tastes come from the soy sauce. The combination of flavors also makes it comparable to barbecue sauce.

Can you make eel sauce without mirin?

If you’re out of mirin, there are several other ingredients you can use instead. Dry sherry and sweet marsala wine will do in a pinch.

You can also use dry white wine or vinegar, but you’ll have to add more sugar to counter the acidic taste. Adding ½ tsp sugar for every tsp of the ingredient you use should do the trick.

Is eel sauce vegan?

Yes and no.

The recipe for eel sauce included in this article is vegan. However, ingredients can be added to eel sauce, such as eel extract (bones) and dashi (fish stock) to enhance the flavor.

When these ingredients are added, it negates the vegan properties of the sauce.

Is eel sauce gluten-free?

Those on a gluten-free diet avoid eating wheat products. This is usually to reduce symptoms that are exacerbated by the ingestion of wheat. But some claim the elimination of wheat just makes them more focused and energized.

Unfortunately, eel sauce is not gluten-free. Eel sauce contains soy sauce, which has wheat. So if you’re looking for a gluten-free culinary experience, eel sauce should be avoided.

Is eel sauce kosher?

Kosher refers to food that’s prepared in a certain way so it’s considered safe by the Jewish community.

So you can’t really say that certain foods are kosher and certain foods aren’t. While this can be true, it’s more about the preparation than the food itself.

To make sure the eel sauce you’re eating is kosher, check the label before consuming it.

Is eel sauce keto?

Keto diets are typically low in carbs and high in healthy fats. Eel sauce is high in sugar and carbs, so it’s not keto-friendly.

If you’re trying to stick to a keto diet, you’re best off avoiding adding it to your meals.

How long does eel sauce last?

Store-bought eel sauce lasts for several months when unopened because it contains preservatives.

Once it’s opened, it should be placed in the refrigerator. From there, you can expect it to last 2 weeks.

It can also be frozen if you don’t use it very often.

Can you eat eel sauce if you’re pregnant?

The answer to this question is yes, you can eat eel sauce if you’re pregnant. The confusion may lie in the fact that many pregnant women are advised not to eat sushi and certain types of fish.

However, because eel sauce doesn’t contain any eel, it’s perfectly safe for pregnant women.

However, pregnant women might want to be careful if they’re eating eel sauce on sushi. Certain types of sushi aren’t advisable to eat when pregnant.

But it should be noted that even eel sushi has the okay from experts.

The eel in eel sushi is cooked so pregnant women don’t have to worry about possible contamination from raw fish. It also doesn’t contain high levels of mercury that can be dangerous to women who are pregnant.

Is sushi sauce eel sauce?

Eel sauce is commonly used on sushi and manufacturers will often label eel sauce as sushi sauce when it’s sold in retail shops.

However, there are other types of sauces used on sushi, so it’s wrong to assume that the sauce on your sushi is eel sauce in all circumstances.

Does Walmart sell eel sauce?

Yes, you can find eel sauce at Walmart in some locations. Eel sauce is also available for online purchase through the Walmart website.

Is eel sauce healthy?

While eel sauce is relatively low in calories and contains some nutrients, it’s high in sugar and sodium. Therefore, it isn’t considered a healthy food.

Does eel sauce taste fishy?

Certain types of eel sauce have eel stock added. If this is the case, it may produce a fishy taste.

In all other instances, the sauce shouldn’t taste fishy.

Can you buy eel sauce at the grocery store?

Eel sauce can be purchased at grocery stores that specialize in Asian and Japanese cuisine. You may also be able to buy it in other types of grocery stores in the international food items section.

Try nitsume eel sauce on your sushi

Now that you know everything there is to know about eel sauce, you can use it confidently in your meals. How will you be adding it to your recipes to bring out the flavor?

Ever had trouble finding Japanese recipes that were easy to make?

We now have "cooking Japanese with ease", our full recipe book and video course with step-by-step tutorials on your favorite recipes.

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.