Japanese Eel Sauce

A bottle of Kikkoman™ Japanese Eel Sauce

Japanese Eel Sauce is a condiment and glaze sometimes used in Japanese Restaurant dishes. It is easy to find in shops and well worth trying.

If you haven’t encountered Japanese Eel Sauce before, you may be wondering whether it is a sauce made *for* Eel dishes, or one made *from* Eels. Well, the short answer is… both. Rest assured, though, even if you are not keen on a meal of eels, this sauce will not make any food you use it with taste ‘fishy’ in any way.

What is Japanese Eel Sauce?

Eel Sauce is a Japanese preparation sometimes known as ‘Nitsume’ or ‘Kabayaki Sauce’. While it is quite commonly used as a glaze for grilled eel dishes (indeed, the ‘Unagi’ on the bottle label means freshwater Eel), the name arises because it was traditionally made by making an umami-rich stock by boiling eels and reducing it to a syrupy consistency. Nowadays, Sugar, Mirin, Sake and Soy Sauce are all commonly used in the basic recipe and Dashi often replaces Eel stock.

I often think of Eel Sauce as being the Japanese equivalent of Chinese Oyster Sauce and the two can be used almost interchangeably. Indeed, the taste is very similar, although, some varieties, especially those made with Dashi, have a slightly smoky taste that goes very well with grilled foods.

A closeup of Japanese Eel Sauce
A closeup of Japanese Eel Sauce

Here is a little of the sauce in the bottom of a little bowl. With a larger amount, it is difficult to appreciate the color and consistency as it looks very much like very dark Blackstrap Molasses. Here, though, you can see the nice reddish color that makes the sauce look so attractive when used as a glaze.

What does Eel Sauce Taste Like?

The flavour, as I suggest above, is very similar to Oyster Sauce, and has the same malty sweetness and no real discernibly ‘fishy’ taste at all. It can be somewhat salty (different versions are more or less so), and the smoky quality can be absent in some and quite strong in others. The Kikkoman™ Brand variety shown above is one which has little to no smoky taste and is a product I very much recommend.

Probably, I can safely say that the differences between Oyster Sauce and Eel Sauce are no more pronounced than the differences between one brand of eel sauce and another. If you like the Classic favorite Beef with Broccoli in Oyster Sauce, you are going to enjoy the dish every bit as much if made with Japanese Eel Sauce as well.

Using Japanese Eel Sauce in Recipes

Skewered Chicken grilled with Japanese Eel Sauce
Skewered Chicken grilled with Japanese Eel Sauce

Given the similarities, one can obviously use Japanese Eel Sauce in any situation where Oyster Sauce might otherwise be used. Beyond this, Eel Sauce shines as a glaze for grilled foods and not just for fish or shellfish. One can, indeed, make a lovely Teriyaki style chicken preparation using nothing more than a little of the sauce brushed on chunks of chicken meat before grilling.

You can see that use in the picture above. This little Yakitori appetizer dish is nothing more than small chunks of Chicken thigh meat alternated on skewers with sections of Scallion. Everything is brushed lightly with a little Eel Sauce before being grilled and the result is delicious.

Comments, questions or suggestions most welcome!