I’ve personally taste-tested a variety of unagi sauce substitutes to find the best one for every cooking occasion.
Whether you’re on the hunt for the closest flavor match, in need of a last-minute pantry substitute, or seeking an alternative tailored to your specific dietary requirements, rest assured that I’ve got you covered.
The best substitutes for unagi sauce are the homemade version, Teriyaki sauce, and kecap manis. If you can’t do a grocery run, mixing your usual soy sauce and favorite sweetener will get the job done. For a lighter alternative, try serving your eel with a side of Ponzu sauce instead.
I made grilled unagi to try out different unagi sauce substitutes.
Unagi sauce, or eel sauce, is a thick soy-based condiment usually used brushed over grilled unagi. It has a luscious consistency (roughly the same thickness as homemade teriyaki sauce) and boasts a sweet-savory kick loaded with umami goodness.
Here’s what I tested and my verdicts.
|Homemade unagi sauce||Replace in a 1:1 ratio||10/10|
|Teriyaki sauce||Replace in a 1:1 ratio||10/10|
|Kecap manis||Replace in a 1:1 ratio||10/10|
|Regular soy sauce + sweetener||Replace in a 1:1 ratio with a soy sauce and sweetener mixture||9/10|
|Hoisin sauce||Replace in a 1:1 ratio||9/10|
|Oyster sauce||Replace in a 1:1 ratio||8/10|
|Ponzu sauce||Replace in a 1:1 ratio||8/10|
Common uses for unagi sauce and their best substitutes
Here are some popular ways to use unagi sauce and the best substitutes for those situations:
- Glaze for grilled unagi and other proteins: Try using homemade unagi sauce, teriyaki sauce, or kecap manis. Avoid using thinner sauces here, such as ponzu, as they don’t adhere to the meat as well.
- As a condiment/dipping sauce: Try using homemade unagi sauce, teriyaki sauce, kecap manis, or hoisin sauce.
- Stir-fries and noodle dishes: Try using homemade unagi sauce, teriyaki sauce, kecap manis, or oyster sauce. Depending on the flavor profile of your stir fry, you could also try Worcestershire sauce or hoisin sauce.
- Vinaigrettes: Try using homemade unagi sauce, teriyaki sauce, or kecap manis.
Homemade unagi sauce
Making homemade unagi sauce is a piece of cake.
This recipe from How Daily only calls for five ingredients, most of which you can easily find at a nearby Asian store.
And to make this tasty concoction, all you need to do is mix the soy sauce, mirin, hondashi granules, sugar, and sake in a pan and cook them until they reach a slightly syrupy texture.
It’s that easy – you’ll never have to look for a commercial bottle again!
Psst… Remember not to let the sauce simmer for too long, as it’ll thicken up even more as it cools down. And if you need a substitute for mirin – I got you covered!
How to substitute: Replace unagi sauce in a 1:1 ratio with teriyaki sauce.
Guess what? Teriyaki sauce is like unagi sauce’s long-lost twin!
Both share many of the same ingredients, but teriyaki sauce edges out unagi sauce when it comes to saltiness.
But once I took a bite of my grilled unagi with teriyaki sauce, I couldn’t really tell the difference.
Just a heads up, though – commercial teriyaki sauces tend to be thicker than unagi sauce, so you can mix it with water to thin it out.
How to substitute: Replace unagi sauce in a 1:1 ratio with teriyaki sauce.
While you’re here, check out my post on substituting teriyaki sauce for even more ideas!
Kecap manis (AKA sweet soy sauce)
I immediately thought of kecap manis when I first tried unagi sauce.
This condiment is like unagi sauce’s cousin, bringing a similar sweet-savory flavor to your dish.
The only difference is its sweetness lends a more caramel-like twist than unagi sauce, thanks to the addition of palm sugar.
I thought I’d have difficulty looking for a bottle of this Indonesian soy sauce, but I easily got a bottle from the international aisle. ABC is my favorite brand!
I list several other similar alternatives to kecap manis in the linked article. Some could also be used in place of eel sauce!
How to substitute: Replace unagi sauce in a 1:1 ratio with kecap manis.
Regular soy sauce + sweetener
In a pinch and need a quick, no-fuss unagi sauce substitute? Look no further than your trusty regular soy sauce and favorite sweetener.
While this dynamic duo may not offer the same depth of flavor as unagi sauce, they’ll still bring an umami-loaded, savory-sweet kick to your dishes.
The best part? You have complete control over the sweetness, so you can easily adjust it to suit your taste.
Start with a small amount of sweetener and build up to find your ideal balance!
How to substitute: Replace unagi sauce in a 1:1 ratio with a mixture of soy sauce and your chosen sweetener.
This classic Chinese condiment may not exactly match our beloved unagi sauce, but it’s a solid substitute, albeit with a different flavor profile.
This sweet-savory delight is saltier (even more than teriyaki sauce), so I like mixing it with more sugar to bring it closer to that unagi flavor we all love.
And don’t worry about its thicker consistency – mix it with water before to give it a more pourable consistency you can brush over your unagi or other proteins.
How to substitute: Replace unagi sauce in a 1:1 ratio with hoisin sauce.
Oyster sauce is another convenient alternative to unagi sauce.
The briny notes in oyster sauce complement eel and other seafood dishes like a dream.
And it has caramel-like notes that’ll remind you of unagi sauce, although I find them too subtle for my taste.
It’s not a big problem, though – I usually add a dash of my favorite sweetener to slightly boost oyster sauce’s sweetness.
How to substitute: Replace unagi sauce in a 1:1 ratio with oyster sauce.
This popular Japanese condiment offers a zesty, citrusy alternative to unagi sauce, making it the perfect choice for when you’re craving something lighter and fresher.
It might not be as sweet as unagi sauce, but Ponzu sauce is a great option when you want something light and citrusy. It adds a tangy flavor to your dish that’ll make your taste buds tingle.
I’d recommend against using ponzu sauce as a replacement for brushing on meats — including unagi, as it won’t result in the same shine.
Ponzu contains citrus juice, making it thinner and less sticky. The thickness of unagi sauce helps it adhere to the eel (and other meats), creating a glossy look when cooked.
But don’t fret! You can still use it as a replacement for your eel dipping sauce or marinade.
Check out even more Ponzu sauce alternatives here.
Ponzu sauce is readily available in most Asian markets, but you can also make it from scratch if you’re not in a rush.
How to substitute: Replace unagi sauce in a 1:1 ratio with ponzu sauce.
Other substitutes to consider
The list above features my top picks for unagi sauce substitutes, but here are other options you can use if you have them:
- Tian Mian sauce – Chinese condiment made from wheat flour. It has a savory-sweet flavor reminiscent of unagi sauce. The only caveat is it has a far thicker consistency than unagi sauce, but like with previous substitutes, you can always fix this with a dash of water.
- Worcestershire sauce – this is not an exact flavor match for unagi sauce, but it works well. It has a more complex savory-sweet flavor profile than unagi, with the addition of tamarinds bringing a tangy note. I usually don’t mind this, but you can always offset it by adding more sugar. Worcestershire sauce also has a thinner consistency than unagi sauce, but you can cook it down with a slurry to thicken it up.
- Korean BBQ sauce – this shares the same flavor notes, but what sets it apart is it has a prominent spicy kick. Like with Worcestershire sauce, I don’t mind the added heat, but you can always balance it with a spritz of lemon juice.
Substitutes to avoid
I came across these substitutes while doing my research, so I had to try them out. But I don’t think they work as an alternative for unagi sauce.
- American-style BBQ sauce – this can be good for any grilled meat, but it strays too far from unagi sauce’s flavor profile. It also has a distinct smokiness that can overpower your eel.
- Fish sauce – this tastes nothing like unagi sauce. It has a subtle sweetness, but all you can taste is its prominent fishy, salty flavor. Plus, unlike unagi sauce, which you can use on its own, fish sauce needs to be mixed with other condiments.
Unagi Sauce Substitute (AKA Eel Sauce)
- ½ cup soy sauce
- ½ cup mirin
- 4 tbsp sugar
- 1 ¼ tsp dried hondashi
- 2 tbsp sake
- Over medium heat, combine all the ingredients in one pot. Bring to a boil.
- Once boiling, reduce and simmer for 15-20 minutes. Leave to cool and thicken.