Nitsume: The Delicious “Unagi” Eel Sauce Explained

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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?

Is eel sauce made from eels?

Eel sauce is not made with eel but is used to flavor eel. Traditional nitsume is made by simmering eels with soy sauce, sugar, and mirin until they’re reduced into a thick sauce, but you can’t get that outside of Japan. Commercially available eel sauce doesn’t contain any eel.

Let’s look at what eel sauce taste like, what it’s made from, and how it’s used.

Eel Sauce nitsume explained

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

But first, watch this interesting video on eel sauce:

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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”.

Nitsume vs unagi no tare vs kabayaki sauce

In Japan, eel sauce is called “unagi no tare”, which means “sauce for eels.” It’s also called nitsume or kabayaki sauce. The difference in name comes from different eel cooking styles, not in the sauce. Kabayaki for example, is where the eel is butterflied and skewered to be grilled (yaki).

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.

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

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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

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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.

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.

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?

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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.