10 Best Unagi Sauce Substitutes That You Can Use as Marinades

Unagi is a staple sauce in Japanese cuisine that adds an element of savory sweetness to whatever food it’s paired with. It is very versatile, making it almost a necessity for chefs to have on hand.

If you don’t have any unagi sauce and can’t find any, you aren’t out of options. There are a few other sauces that you can use instead. 

Some of the best substitutes for unagi sauce are teriyaki sauce, hoisin sauce, soy sauce, ponzu, Korean galbi sauce, oyster sauce, barbecue sauce, Worcestershire sauce, and maple syrup. You can even make your own unagi sauce at home.

What is Unagi Sauce (Eel Sauce) Made From?

Eel sauce, or unagi sauce, is made from just a few simple ingredients: mirin, sugar, sake, and soy sauce. The Japanese word “unagi” translates to “eel” in English. Despite its name, unagi sauce does not contain any eel! Because of this, its flavor is relatively easy to replicate.

The ingredients used to make unagi sauce are somewhat common and easy to find. They are a part of the recipe of many other sauces, and give unagi sauce its pungent flavor that it is known for.

How is Unagi Sauce Used in Cooking?

One of the most popular dishes unagi sauce is used for is grilled eel, hence its nickname “eel sauce.” It is also used for other grilled meats and fish. In addition to being a marinade, unagi sauce is also a delicious condiment.

It can be used as a dipping sauce for sushi and basically any other food. Unagi sauce can also be used in less conventional ways, like drizzling it over pizza to get the most out of its flavor.

What Can I Substitute for Eel Sauce?

There are many options when it comes to substitutes for unagi sauce. Here are some of the most widely available ones:

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1. Teriyaki Sauce

Teriyaki sauce can make for a great unagi sauce substitute. First and foremost, they are used for many of the same purposes, like adding a glaze to cooked and grilled food. They are also both made out of soy sauce and sugar. 

One big difference between the two is that teriyaki sauce contains more added ingredients than unagi sauce. Typical additions to teriyaki sauce include ginger, garlic, or honey. So, teriyaki sauce tends to have a more complex flavor than unagi sauce.

2. Hoisin Sauce

Hoisin sauce is another popular condiment that can be substituted for unagi sauce. It is a Chinese sauce, rather than Japanese, but still has the element of giving food a more rich flavor by adding both sweetness and saltiness.

It is made with a soybean paste, then sugar and vinegar are added. Various other spices could be included in hoisin sauce, sometimes including chili. If you aren’t a big fan of spicy foods, be sure to check the ingredients of hoisin sauce before purchasing it.

3. Soy Sauce

Soy sauce is immensely popular and versatile. Unagi sauce is made out of soy sauce, so it’s only sensible to come to the conclusion that soy sauce could be a substitute for eel sauce. It is made out of fermented soybeans, salt, and oftentimes wheat.

This is a great option for those who are trying to cut back on sugar or don’t want to use something that’s too sweet. Adding a bit of soy sauce to your dish can give it the extra taste that it needs. Soy sauce is a healthier option than the sauces above, and it proves that flavor doesn’t have to be sacrificed for health.

4. Ponzu

The taste of ponzu is very tangy. It is another Japanese condiment that has similar ingredients to unagi; ponzu is also made from soy sauce and mirin. What creates a distinction in their flavors is that ponzu usually has more citrusy ingredients added.

Ponzu has a very complex flavor profile; with elements of sweetness, bitterness, sourness, and salt. Most commonly, it is eaten with poultry or fish.

5. Korean Galbi Sauce

Korean galbi sauce is used for the same purposes that unagi sauce is; adding color, flavor, and texture to a dish. The Korean word “galbi” translates to “rib,” and the sauce is commonly used on ribs, in the same way that Americans use barbecue sauce.

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Galbi is often used to glaze or marinate meats. Different brands will make galbi that varies slightly in flavor, but overall it is made with a base of soy sauce and sugar. Various other flavoring elements might be added as well, including apple or pear.

6. Oyster Sauce 

Unlike unagi, oyster sauce is made with seafood. Oysters are simmered in water until they start to carmelize, and the byproduct of this is used to turn into a sauce. The flavor of oyster sauce is somewhat fishy, but not overwhelmingly so.

Its taste is much milder than many other sauces on this list, so it can be an ideal option for picky eaters. It will, however, alter the taste of whatever it is added to, so it’s best to start small and see how you like it. Oyster sauce can be used in any way that unagi sauce would be.

7. BBQ Sauce

Any sort of BBQ sauce can be used as a substitute for unagi sauce. Barbecue sauce is immensely popular in the US, so there should be many flavor varieties to choose from. This is great news, and will allow you to add a personalized touch to your recipe.

For example, if you want to give your food a sweeter taste, try honey-flavored barbecue sauce. For something smokier, opt for one that has chipotle peppers in it. The taste of barbecue sauce doesn’t exactly replicate that of unagi sauce, but they have very similar textures so it can work.

8. Worcestershire Sauce

Worcestershire sauce makes for a good replacement for unagi sauce because it also is complex in its flavor and offers both sweetness and savoriness. Common ingredients in Worcestershire sauce are molasses, vinegar, tamarind, sugar, and spices.

One main difference between this and unagi sauce is that Worcestershire sauce is much saltier than unagi. So, a few splashes of it can go further for your food than you might think. Worcestershire can also be used as a soy sauce replacement, but it is much sweeter.

9. Maple Syrup

It may be a seemingly unlikely contender, but maple syrup can stand in for unagi sauce in your foods. Especially if you have a sweet tooth, you’ll find that maple syrup is more versatile than you previously might have thought. It is commonly used in Asian cooking.

10. Homemade Unagi Sauce

If you’re up for it, you can make eel sauce at home, and it isn’t a very difficult process. The benefit of making your own unagi sauce is that you have control over how sweet or salty it is, and can adjust it to your liking.

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How Do You Make Unagi Sauce at Home?

To make your own unagi sauce, you’ll need two tablespoons of sake, two tablespoons of sugar, ¼ cup of mirin, and ¼ cup of soy sauce. First, add the sake, mirin, and sugar into a saucepan and set it to medium heat. Stir occasionally until it steams.

Next you’ll pour in the soy sauce. Stir until the mixture starts boiling, then turn down the heat. Let it simmer for about ten minutes, then remove the pan from heat and let it cool.

After that, you’re pretty much done! Make sure to put your homemade unagi sauce into an airtight container and store it in the fridge. It will stay good for around three months.

Frequently Asked Questions

What does eel sauce taste like?

The most noticeable flavor element in unagi sauce is its sweetness. It is not sweet like candy or fruit is, and more savory. You’ll also notice that it’s mildly salty and smoky. This complex flavor profile will tie together many recipes.

Is there fish in eel sauce?

Contrary to its name, eel sauce does not contain fish. The Japanese word “unagi” translates to “eel” in English, and the sauce is commonly used for eel in Japanese cuisine. So, its name means it’s a sauce for eating eel and not a sauce made of eel.

Can you buy unagi sauce in the grocery store?

Eel sauce shouldn’t be hard to find. It’s known to be sold at major retailers like Target and Walmart. While you might have some luck tracking it down at a more traditional grocery store, your best bet to getting eel sauce would be at a Japanese market or store.

At a Japanese market, you’ll find more brands and varieties of eel sauce. It can also be purchased online, including on Amazon.

Final Thoughts

Unagi is a delectable sauce that is used primarily to marinate meats. It can also be used as a condiment or for stir fries, and adds a complex flavor to whatever it’s paired with. If you don’t have any unagi sauce available to you, luckily there are plenty of similar sauces that can be used in its place.