Something I discovered pretty early on in my vegan career was that the name of food wasn’t always a clue as to whether or not it was vegan. Jelly beans? Full of gelatin and covered in beeswax or shellac. Potato wedges from my favourite fast food place? Fried in beef fat. Everywhere I turned, I seemed to discover a deceptively named food that was hiding non-vegan ingredients. It’s really great when the opposite happens and you find a food that sounds non-vegan, yet is completely free from animal products. It doesn’t happen very often but there are a few examples — like eel sauce.
Is eel sauce vegan? Although some brands are made using bones and discarded tissues from eels, most eel sauce does not contain any fish at all. With a few exceptions, most commercial brands of eel sauce are free from animal ingredients and can safely be consumed by vegans.
If you’ve arrived on this page, you have questions about eel sauce and other common ingredients.
- Is eel sauce vegan?
- Why is it called eel sauce if there are no eels in it?
- What are the ingredients found in eel sauce?
- Which brands of eel sauce are vegan-approved?
- What do you need to watch out for when buying eel sauce?
- How do you use eel sauce in cooking?
You’ve come to the right place. We have the answers you’re looking for. Just read on to find out everything you want to know about eel sauce and its place in a vegan diet.
Is eel sauce vegan?
One of the recommendations I got as a baby vegan made me do a double-take. Eel sauce? But eels are fish… right? Oddly enough, most eel sauce is indeed vegan. It originates in Japan where it’s known as unagi no tare. This tasty, savoury sauce was traditionally brushed onto eels to give them a better flavour when they were grilled. This is where it gets its name, rather than being named after its ingredients. These days, most commercial manufacturers don’t bother with the eel bones and instead use a variety of plant-based ingredients to create their sauces. This makes eel sauce a great staple for the vegan larder.
Eel sauce adds a rich flavour to all your grilled foods, from tofu and seitan to vegetables. You can also stir it into soups, stews, curries, rice — all kinds of recipes. My favourite uses it as a dip for my vegetable sushi. Eel sauce is just a little spicier and more complex than plain soy sauce and really brings out the flavours.
If there’s no eel in eel sauce, what does it contain? Eel sauce is typically made with mirin (a sweet rice wine), soy sauce, garlic, sugar and some kind of chilli sauce such as Sriracha. You can find ready-made eel sauce in many Asian stores and larger supermarkets but it’s very easy to make yourself.
Most commercial brands of eel sauce are made using similar ingredients to the ones you’ll see in vegan eel sauce recipes, give or take a few flavourings and additives. You should always check the ingredients before you buy, though, as some eel sauce is made using animal ingredients. These include dashi (a Japanese fish sauce), fish stock, fermented fish eggs, fish bones, to name just a few potential ingredients. As you can see, it’s best to check before eating anything made with eel sauce.
If you’re eating out, it’s probably okay for you to eat foods that are made with eel sauce. You should check with your server and make sure you know exactly what you’re getting, however. Most places will use a recipe similar to the vegan one outlined above but others may include fish or meat ingredients.
What are some good brands of eel sauce?
As one of the most widely used condiments in Japan, there are countless brands of eel sauce on the market. They all have slightly different ingredients. Many are not okay for vegans to use as they include ingredients derived from fish or other animals.
I know a few brands of eel sauce that are suitable for vegans. One that I like is Yummyto Unagi no Tare. Daisho Unagi Kabayaki no Tare is also vegan, but I personally don’t like it as much. My particular favourite is Kikkoman Unagi Tare, which is a rich-tasting vegan eel sauce. Luckily it’s hugely popular and easy to find.
Best of all, though, is making your own at home. I much prefer to do this as it gives me more complete control over what goes into the sauce, allowing me to avoid ingredients I don’t like or find ethically dubious. All the ingredients are easily available and it’s very quick to make.
A big advantage of making your own eel sauce at home is that you can tweak the recipe to work with your specific dietary requirements. For example, most eel sauce contains some gluten. If you’re gluten-sensitive or suffering from coeliac disease, you might want to avoid this. By switching out the regular soy sauce for gluten-free soy, you can make a gluten-free eel sauce since the other ingredients should be safe too.
How can I make eel sauce at home?
There are lots of vegan eel sauce recipes around. It is really easy to make, with just a few ingredients and a simple method. A good basic recipe would look something like this:
- 60ml (1/4 cup) of mirin
- 60ml (1/4 cup) of dark soy sauce
- 20g (1 1/2 Tbsp) of brown sugar
- Hot sauce to taste
- A dash of sake (optional)
Place the mirin, sugar and sake in a pan and warm over medium heat until all the sugar is dissolved. Make sure it’s thoroughly absorbed into the fluid or your sauce will be gritty and unpleasant. Once all the ingredients are blended you can add the soy sauce. Bring everything to the boil, then reduce the heat and allow to simmer for around 20 minutes. Remove from the heat and add a generous dash of hot sauce. Allow to cool; the sauce will get a bit thicker as it cools down.
It won’t take you more than half an hour or so, excluding the time it takes for the sauce to cool and thicken. The sake is optional, as I said, but it does add a bit more depth to the flavour. The choice of hot sauce is up to you. Since I prefer a slightly smoky flavour I use Chipotle Tabasco in place of the usual Sriracha. If I can’t get hold of mirin, I use sweet cooking sherry. It’s not quite as authentic but nobody’s ever complained about my sushi. Luckily, you can find mirin at Asian stores and most large supermarkets. It’s a great ingredient to keep in the house, as you can use it in so many vegan recipes.
Now that you have your sauce, it will keep in the fridge for at least a couple of weeks. I find the flavour improves with keeping. In the next section, we’ll look at ways you can use your eel sauce in food preparation.
How do I use eel sauce?
I love Asian foods because so many dishes are intrinsically vegan, or can be made vegan with just a couple of adjustments. Japanese food, in particular, lends itself to being “veganised” thanks to the heavy emphasis on tofu and fresh vegetables. Often the only thing you need to do is swap out one or two ingredients for a delicious and satisfying meal. Eel sauce, having originated in Japan, is one example of a great vegan ingredient.
The traditional role of eel sauce is as a tasty coating for food that is to be grilled. Originally this would have been eel, of course, but it works really well with vegetables and vegan meat substitutes.
One example is tofu. You can marinate the tofu by soaking it in the eel sauce for a few hours. My absolute favourite way to use eel sauce with tofu is to fry the tofu first, using a healthy oil. This works best with slices rather than chunks. You can reduce the fat content by blotting the fried tofu on a paper towel before either dunking it in the eel sauce or brushing the sauce on. You can then grill the tofu. The taste and texture is amazing — frying gives the tofu a bit more body and the eel sauce delivers a satisfyingly savoury tang.
If you eat gluten, seitan works really well with eel sauce. If you’re not familiar with seitan, it’s made from wheat gluten — yes, the sticky protein that holds wheat bread together and unfortunately distresses some digestive systems. You’ll find it in many Asian grocers, where it’s sometimes sold as “mock duck”. As with tofu, I find marinating slices of seitan before grilling produces a fantastic vegan meat substitute. The texture is firmer and chewier than tofu so it makes a nice change.
Eel sauce is also great brushed onto grilled vegetables. Peppers, courgettes and Portobello mushrooms all taste great with a coating of eel sauce. You can slice aubergines (eggplants) lengthwise to make “steaks” and then brush on the eel sauce to make a delicious grilled treat.
You can use eel sauce as a dipping sauce for your favourite vegan sushi. Nowadays it’s fairly easy to pick up vegetable-based sushi but making your own is great fun. Pour a little eel sauce into a small saucer and dunk your pieces of sushi into that rather than tipping sauce over the sushi.