Make your own unagi sushi, or eel sushi, with this effortless recipe. Featuring pre-grilled eel, seasoned rice, and a sweet soy glaze (unagi sauce), satisfy your sushi cravings in under 30 minutes. This recipe is simply perfect for lunch, dinner, or a quick snack.
What is Unagi?
Unagi is the Japanese word for freshwater eel, specifically the Japanese eel (Anguilla japonica). It is a popular and traditional dish in Japanese cuisine, often grilled and served with a sweet soy-based glaze called "tare." Unagi is known for its tender and rich flavor, making it a delicacy enjoyed by many in Japan and worldwide.
The unagi preparation involves "kabayaki," where the eel is butterflied, skewered, and then grilled over an open flame or charcoal. The tare sauce is brushed onto the eel while grilling, giving it a sweet and savory glaze. Unagi is commonly served over rice as "Unadon" (grilled eel rice bowl) or "Hitsumabushi" (a Nagoya specialty where the eel is eaten in different ways – as is, with condiments, and mixed with broth and rice).
Unagi has cultural significance in Japan and is often consumed on certain occasions, such as the Doyo no Ushi no Hi (Day of the Ox) in mid-summer and during the Japanese custom of "Eel Day" to provide stamina during the hot season. It's also considered a nutritious food due to its protein and healthy fat content.
Buy Eel at the Asian Grocery Store in the Frozen Section
In recent years, it has become increasingly common to find pre-cooked and frozen eel in Asian grocery stores. This convenient option saves time and effort and allows easier access to this delicacy. In the frozen section of Asian grocery stores, you can find various eel products, such as pre-grilled or pre-broiled eel fillets, ready to be reheated and served with minimal preparation.
Why you'll love this recipe
- Rich Flavor: Unagi has a unique, rich, and savory flavor that is enhanced through grilling and the sweet soy glaze. This depth of flavor can be very appealing to those who enjoy bold tastes.
- Texture: Unagi has a tender, melt-in-your-mouth texture when adequately grilled. The contrast between the soft eel and the slightly firm rice in nigiri provides a satisfying bite.
- Visual Appeal: The glossy, caramelized glaze on the eel and the precise presentation of nigiri on a small bed of rice make unagi nigiri visually appealing and enticing.
- Umami: The unagi roll is packed with umami, the fifth basic taste sensation. Umami is known for enhancing the overall flavor experience and making food more satisfying.
- Adaptability: Unagi sushi can be enjoyed in various ways. Some might prefer the classic eel sushi, while others might enjoy experimenting by adding wasabi, ginger, or other condiments to customize the flavors.
Gather your ingredients
For the Unagi Nigiri
- Grilled BBQ Unagi (Japanese Eel): Look for pre-grilled and seasoned unagi, as the grilling process can be quite involved. You can find this at your local Asian grocery store or a specialty Japanese store.
- Sushi Rice: Use high-quality Japanese short-grain rice (sushi rice), which is sticky and holds its shape well when formed into nigiri.
- Nori (Seaweed Sheets): Thin strips of nori can be used to secure the eel to the rice.
- Sweet Soy Glaze (Tare): A sweet soy-based glaze brushed onto the eel while grilling. You can make your own or purchase a pre-made tare. You can also substitute it with teriyaki sauce.
For the Tare Sauce (Eel Sauce)
- Soy Sauce: This is renowned for its high umami content, which is the fifth basic taste sensation. Adding soy sauce to the unagi sauce intensifies the umami component, making the sauce more flavorful and satisfying. Soy sauce contains salt, which helps balance the sweetness from ingredients like mirin and sugar in the tare sauce.
- Mirin and Sake: Sake and mirin are both types of rice wines that contribute to the depth of flavor in the tare sauce. Sake adds a rich umami quality, while mirin imparts sweetness and a slightly tangy note. Mirin and sake are commonly found in well-stocked supermarkets, liquor stores, or Asian grocery stores. They're essential ingredients in Japanese cuisine and are often located in the condiments or international aisles.
- Dark brown sugar: Used to sweeten the sauce. You can also substitute with light brown sugar or granulated sugar.
- Garlic cloves: Mashed garlic is used to flavor the sauce. When the sauce is done cooking, strain the sauce to get rid of any garlic chunks.
Optional for serving:
- Wasabi: A small amount of wasabi paste can be placed between the eel and rice or served on the side.
- Pickled Ginger: Thinly sliced pickled ginger can be served as a palate cleanser between bites.
- Sesame Seeds: Toasted sesame seeds can add a nutty flavor and visual appeal when sprinkled over the eel.
- Chopped Scallions: Finely chopped scallions can provide a fresh, oniony flavor and a pop of color.
⬇️ Please scroll down to the recipe card to see the full ingredient amounts and instructions ⬇️
How to make it
*If using pre-grilled frozen eel, let it thaw in the fridge for at least 2 hours.*
Step One: Prepare the sushi rice. Cook the sushi rice according to the package instructions. Once the rice is cooked, season it with a mixture of rice vinegar, sugar, and salt. Gently fold the seasoning into the rice while it's still warm. Allow the rice to cool to room temperature.
Step Two: Prepare the tare sauce. In a medium saucepan over medium heat, add all the ingredients and whisk together until smooth. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat to simmer and cook until the sauce has reduced to half and thickened enough to coat the back of a spoon, about 15 minutes. Strain the sauce through a fine mesh strainer.
Step Three: Prepare the pre-grilled unagi. Put it on a baking sheet and broil it in the oven for 6-8 minutes. If the pre-grilled unagi is whole, cut it in half lengthwise down the middle. Then, cut it into diagonal slices and lightly brush it with the tare sauce.
Step Four: Prepare the nori strips. Cut nori sheets into thin strips (about ½ inch thick) that are long enough to wrap around the center of each rice mound.
Step Five: Form the nigiri. Wet your hands with water to prevent the rice from sticking. Take a small amount of seasoned sushi rice and shape it into an oblong mound, about the size of your index finger.
Step Six: Assemble the Nigiri. Lay a strip of nori around the center of the rice mound. This helps hold the unagi in place and adds an extra layer of flavor. Place a slice of pre-grilled unagi on top of the rice.
Optional Additions: If you like, add a small dab of wasabi on top of the unagi or between the unagi and rice. You can also sprinkle toasted sesame seeds or chopped scallions on top of the unagi for added flavor and texture.
Serve and Enjoy! Arrange the prepared unagi nigiri on a serving platter. Serve the nigiri with pickled ginger on the side to cleanse the palate between bites.
You can also provide soy sauce for dipping, but since the unagi is already glazed, you may not need as much soy sauce as you would with other types of sushi.
Tips for the best Unagi Sushi
- Choose Quality Ingredients: Start with high-quality ingredients, including fresh or well-prepared pre-grilled unagi, premium sushi rice, and authentic Japanese tare (sweet soy glaze).
- Properly Season the Rice: Ensure your sushi rice is properly seasoned with a balance of rice vinegar, sugar, and salt. The rice should be sticky enough to hold its shape but not overly wet.
- Prevent Rice Sticking: Keep your hands moistened with water when handling the rice. This prevents the rice from sticking to your hands and makes it easier to shape into nigiri.
- Perfect Rice Mound: When forming the rice into a mound, aim for an oblong shape that's about two bites' worth. It should be neither too small nor too large.
- Nori Placement: Position the strip of nori around the center of the rice mound. This helps hold the unagi in place and adds an extra layer of umami flavor.
- Optimal Unagi Placement: Place the pre-grilled unagi slice directly on the rice. Ensure it's centered and covers the rice mound evenly.
- Consider Wasabi Placement: If using wasabi, apply a small amount on the unagi or between the unagi and rice. Use it sparingly, as the unagi itself is already flavorful.
- Garnish Thoughtfully: If adding optional toppings like toasted sesame seeds or chopped scallions, do so sparingly to enhance the presentation and flavor without overpowering the unagi.
- Soy Sauce Usage: Since unagi is already glazed with tare, you may not need as much soy sauce for dipping. Use a light hand when dipping to avoid overwhelming the delicate flavors.
- Temperature Awareness: Serve the unagi nigiri at a slightly warm or room temperature. If the unagi is too cold, it may affect the overall flavor and texture.
Frequently Asked Questions
Unagi refers specifically to freshwater eel, often the Japanese eel (Anguilla japonica). It's not a type of fish in the traditional sense but rather a specific species of eel commonly used in Japanese cuisine, especially for dishes like unagi nigiri.
Yes, unagi sushi is cooked. Unagi refers to freshwater eel, and it is typically grilled before being used in sushi dishes like unagi nigiri. The grilling process not only cooks the eel but also imparts a smoky flavor and caramelized glaze due to the sweet soy-based sauce (tare) that's brushed on during grilling. This cooked eel is then placed on seasoned rice to create unagi nigiri.
Freshwater eel is not typically consumed raw in the same way as fish in traditional sushi. Unlike many fish species, eel has a stronger flavor and a different texture that may not be as palatable when raw.
However, some types of saltwater eel, like saltwater unagi (conger eel), are used in certain sushi preparations, where the eel is marinated, cured, or partially cooked before being served. This preparation reduces the risk of parasites and enhances the flavor.
In general, due to potential health risks associated with consuming raw eel, it's recommended to enjoy eel that has been properly cooked, whether through grilling, steaming, or other cooking methods.
Unagi has a deep, savory, and almost meaty flavor that's often described as "umami." This umami quality contributes to its overall richness and satisfying taste. The eel is typically glazed with a sweet soy-based sauce (tare) during grilling, which imparts a subtle sweetness to the dish. This sweet-savory combination is a hallmark of unagi's flavor.
The grilling process gives unagi a slightly smoky aroma and taste, adding another layer of complexity to its flavor profile. When properly cooked, unagi has a tender and slightly firm texture.
What to do with leftovers
If you have leftover unagi nigiri, it's important to refrigerate it promptly. Let the nigiri cool down slightly before placing it in the refrigerator.
Wrap the leftover unagi nigiri tightly in plastic wrap to prevent air exposure and maintain freshness. Ensure the wrap is snug but not so tight that it crushes the nigiri. Alternatively, you can place the wrapped nigiri in an airtight container. This provides an extra layer of protection against moisture and odors from the fridge.
Store the wrapped or containerized unagi nigiri in the refrigerator at a temperature below 40°F (4.4°C). The colder the storage temperature, the longer the leftovers will remain safe and enjoyable. Ideally, consume leftover unagi nigiri within 1 to 2 days to ensure the best flavor and texture. The rice may become harder and less palatable over time.
If you want to reheat the leftover unagi nigiri, do so gently. Use a microwave or stovetop on low heat, being careful not to overheat and compromise the texture.
If you know you won't be able to consume the leftovers within a day or two, you can freeze the unagi nigiri. Wrap each piece individually in plastic wrap and place them in an airtight container. Frozen unagi nigiri can be reheated later by thawing in the refrigerator and gently warming.
Remember that the texture and quality of unagi nigiri might change after refrigeration or freezing. The rice could become firmer, and the eel's texture might alter slightly.
Always prioritize food safety. If the leftovers have been left at room temperature for more than two hours or have an off smell or appearance, it's best to discard them.
Unagi Sushi (Eel Sushi)
For the Unagi Sushi
For the Tare Sauce | Eel Sauce
For Serving (Optional)
- pickled ginger
- toasted sesame seeds
- chopped scallions
- Prepare the sushi rice. Cook the sushi rice according to the package instructions. Once the rice is cooked, season it with a mixture of rice vinegar, sugar, and salt. Gently fold the seasoning into the rice while it's still warm. Allow the rice to cool to room temperature.
- Prepare the tare sauce. In a medium saucepan over medium heat, add all the ingredients and whisk together until smooth. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat to simmer and cook until the sauce has reduced to half and thickened enough to coat the back of a spoon, about 15 minutes. Strain the sauce through a fine mesh strainer.
- Prepare the pre-grilled unagi. Put it on a baking sheet and broil it in the oven for 6-8 minutes. If the pre-grilled unagi is whole, cut it in half lengthwise down the middle. Then, cut it into diagonal slices and lightly brush it with the tare sauce.
- Prepare the nori strips. Cut nori sheets into thin strips (about ½ inch thick) that are long enough to wrap around the center of each rice mound.
- Form the nigiri. Wet your hands with water to prevent the rice from sticking. Take a small amount of seasoned sushi rice and shape it into an oblong mound, about the size of your index finger.
- Assemble the Nigiri. Lay a strip of nori around the center of the rice mound. This helps hold the unagi in place and adds an extra layer of flavor. Place a slice of pre-grilled unagi on top of the rice.
- Serve and Enjoy! Arrange the prepared unagi nigiri on a serving platter. Serve the nigiri with pickled ginger and soy sauce.