What Can I Use Instead of Unagi Sauce? (5 Substitutes)
In this brief guide, we are going to answer the question, “what can I use instead of Unagi sauce” with an in depth analysis of different alternatives.
What can I use instead of unagi sauce?
The global seasonings and spices market is growing at a moderate pace but has been extremely fragmented. Despite a number of established international and domestic brands, the market has only six leading companies collectively holding a market share of nearly 15% (1).
If you are looking for a replacement, the alternatives for unagi sauce are:
- Teriyaki Sauce
- Soy Sauce
- Oyster Sauce
The Best Substitute for Unagi Sauce is Teriyaki Sauce!
While Teriyaki Sauce has a sweeter taste, it works as an ideal substitute. This is because teriyaki sauce too shares the same ingredients such as soy sauce and sugar. However, it also has honey, garlic powder, and ginger. Since they both add a lovely glaze to the food, teriyaki sauce can be used instead of unagi sauce.
Another good thing about substituting teriyaki sauce with unagi is that they can both be used the same way – you don’t need to change the ratio if you’re using them in a dish.
To produce teriyaki sauce, first, eel bones, krill, shrimp peel and crab peel were roasted until browned in an oven at 180°C for 20 minutes. The roasted samples of eel bones, krill, shrimp peel and crab peel were mixed with other ingredients and materials, such as garlic, ginger, red pepper, starch, syrup, soy sauce, sugar, leek, sea tangle and water. The sauce was simmered slowly for a required time of cooking; starch syrup was added before the end of cooking. It was strained, cooled down to room temperature. It was stored until next measurements of sensory test and volatile compounds (2).
What is unagi sauce?
Unagi Sauce, better known as eel sauce, is a sweet grilling sauce. It is made with mirin, sugar, and soy sauce. While originally it was made to prepare unagi i.e. freshwater eels, it is also used for grilling meat and other fish.
It originated from Japan. Many people believe that unagi sauce is actually nitsume sauce. The version that we know is the watered-down American version. It is believed Unagi sauce is a counterfeit product.
The Japanese have been eating eels (called “unagi” in Japanese) since prehistoric times. Eels are usually served as “kabayaki” (broiled strips of eel on skewers flavored in a mixture of soy sauce, sugar, and “mirin”-a sweet rice wine) and “unagi donburi” (kabayaki-without skewers-served in a bowl of hot rice). (3).
The sauce has a rich and thick texture. It is an ideal companion for grilled foods, sushi, and other dishes. So, what does one do when they cannot find unagi sauce? They find a substitute.
Other Alternatives for Unagi Sauce
Now, while we have established that the best replacement for unagi sauce is teriyaki sauce, you might want to have other options up your sleeve. In case you don’t have either unagi sauce or teriyaki sauce at your disposal.
When there’s no teriyaki sauce around, to replace the unagi sauce, go for hoisin sauce. It doesn’t have mirin – much like teriyaki sauce. It doesn’t necessarily have the same taste as unagi sauce. But it’s a close substitute. The flavour is more robust.
If you’ve always wondered which sauce has been responsible for the delicious red, crispy skin for Pekin Ducks – it was Hoisin. Originally from China, this sauce has spicy, salty, and sweet flavors that only add to recipes.
Hoisin sauce is a Chinese sauce typically produced by fermented soybeans, fennel, chili, garlic and possibly vinegar and sugar. Hoisin sauce can be used as a dip with vegetables, in marinades, and in vegetable wok dishes. The taste and aroma are characterized by umami, sour, sweet, hot, and by the garlic aroma. The texture is viscous and slightly sticky (4).
The base of the sauce is a mixture of sugar, vinegar, soybean paste, and a variety of spices. It works extremely well as a dipping sauce as well. Some hoisin sauces are also hot. So, if you’re looking to make a mild recipe – be careful of the variety you are using.
Ponzu is made from dashi, yuzu juice, rice vinegar and mirin. Mirin is a sweet rice wine with an alcohol content of about 14 percent. Mirin is produced from cooked rice that is inoculated with koji. The koji turns the starches of the rice into sugars and the proteins into free amino acids with umami taste. Ponzu is a universal condiment for all sorts of vegetable dishes, in sauces and in dressings. The taste and aroma are characterized by the umami, sour and salt, added by citrus notes and aromas from yuzu. The texture is liquid (4).
If you are in favour of sauces that combine salty, sweet, sour, and bitter then this is the substitute for unagi sauce for you. Originally from Japan, Ponzu sauce is tasty whether it is served with sushi or as a condiment for fish or chicken.
Unlike teriyaki sauce and hoisin sauce, ponzu contains mirin. Which is a major ingredient in unagi sauce. However, the major difference is citrus such as sudachi and yuzu. Tangy flavourful cooking would always favour ponzu sauce.
Soy sauce is made by fermenting soybeans, wheat and possibly other cereals like rice and barley, each leading to their characteristic flavor of the end product. Wheat and rice lead to a sweeter soy sauce. The salt content is high, 14–18 percent. The fermentation leads to the production of large amounts of free amino acids and hence umami. Because the process and the subsequent maturing period is very lengthy, Maillard compounds are formed with their characteristic and rich flavor profile (4).
Soy Sauce is one of the most popular condiments used. While it’s salty on its own, mixing it with mirin and sugar gives it a different edge. While it has its own drawbacks being a substitute for unagi sauce, it is definitely worth exploring. Especially since soy sauce has many different styles, hailing from different South Asian countries.
A genuine oyster sauce is prepared by slowly reducing the water in which
oysters have been cooked. The result is a caramelized, brown liquid to which
salt is added. However, some commercial oyster sauces are made by oyster extract that is thickened by corn starch, coloured by caramel and with added salt and sodium glutamate. It is used in dressings for vegetables and beans. Taste and aroma are characterized by the umami and salty taste and the texture is liquid and slightly viscous (4).
Just in case you’re out of options and you need something to replace unagi sauce: use oyster sauce as the last-ditch attempt. However, since this comes with a fish undertone people who are into milder flavors would ask for a different option.
It can be used in stir-fries, used as a glaze, or just straight up served as a condiment. However, please note that the overall flavor of the food could change drastically if the oyster sauce is chosen. Discretion has to be exercised when switching unagi sauce with oyster sauce.
How to make unagi sauce at home?
Besides these substitutes, you can also make unagi sauce at home. Stores may have individual ingredients if they do not have unagi sauce readily available. This is a good option for those who prefer fresh taste over processed industrial food products. Moreover, you can play with the ingredients and prepare the sauce according to your taste buds.
Here’s what you need to do:
- Take mirin, soy sauce, and sugar in equal amounts and mix them.
- Put them in the saucepan and start heating
- Heating should be done until only ¼ of the mixture remains in the pan.
- While the mixture cools, you can either add water or cornstarch to give your sauce the consistency you desire.
- Serve and enjoy!
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In this listicle, we talked about the five best substitutes you can use for unagi sauce. The order ranks the sauces in terms of which works the best and which just passes the test. If you have any questions for us, please ask us in the comments below.
- Parshutina, Y. THE MODERN MARKET OF SPICES AND SEASONINGS. Zaporizhzhya National University.
- Kheng, Makkhen. Development of seafood flavor using glucosamine and other precursors and its application to Teriyaki sauce. Diss, 2012.
- Folsom, WILLIAM B. Japan’s eel fishery. Mar. Fish. Rev, 1973, 35, 41-45.
- Mouritsen, Ole G., and Klavs Styrbæk. Design and ‘umamification’of vegetable dishes for sustainable eating. Int J Food Design, 2020, 5, 9-42.