Is Fish Sauce and Eel Sauce the Same? What’s the Difference?

unagi ell sauce

Are you a fan of Asian cuisine? If so, you’ve likely encountered an array of delectable sauces that add an extra burst of flavor to your favorite dishes. Two sauces that often cause confusion among food enthusiasts are fish sauce and eel sauce. At first glance, they might seem similar. Don’t be fooled—there are significant differences between these two tantalizing condiments.

In this article, we’ll embark on a flavorful journey to uncover the truth: Are fish sauce and eel sauce the same, or is there something that sets them apart? Get ready to dive into the world of savory delights as we explore the ingredients, flavors, and common uses of these beloved Asian sauces.

Let’s explore fish and eel sauce to expand your culinary knowledge and delight your taste buds.

Fish Sauce

Fish sauce is a staple in many Southeast Asian cuisines, particularly Thai, Vietnamese, and Filipino. It has a long history, dating back thousands of years.

Traditionally, small fish like anchovies are used in the fermentation process. The fish are layered with salt in barrels or vats and left to ferment for several months to a year.

The result is a dark, amber-colored liquid with a strong and distinct aroma. Fish sauce is rich in umami flavor, which adds depth and complexity to dishes. It is often described as pungent, salty, and briny. Despite fish sauce’s strong smell, when used in cooking, it imparts a savory and delicious taste to various dishes.

Fish sauce is incredibly versatile and can be used as a base for soups, stir-fries, marinades, and dipping sauces. It is an essential ingredient in famous dishes like Thai green curry, Vietnamese pho, and Filipino adobo. In these recipes, fish sauce is used to enhance the taste without overpowering other flavors.

Here is a table summarizing the characteristics of fish sauce:

ColorDark amber
AromaStrong and pungent
FlavorSalty, briny, and umami
UsageSoups, stir-fries, marinades, and dipping sauces
Common CuisinesThai, Vietnamese, and Filipino

Eel Sauce

Eel sauce, also known as unagi sauce, is a popular condiment in Japanese cuisine. It is used as a glaze or drizzle over grilled or broiled eel dishes, such as unagi sushi or unadon (grilled eel over rice). Unlike fish sauce, eel sauce does not involve fermentation.

The main ingredients in eel sauce are soy sauce, mirin (a sweet rice wine), sugar, and sometimes dashi (a Japanese soup stock). The sauce is prepared by simmering these ingredients until they reduce to a thick, syrupy consistency. This reduction process caramelizes the sugars and imparts a rich, sweet, and savory flavor to the sauce.

Eel sauce has a glossy, dark brown appearance and a velvety texture. It offers a delightful balance of sweetness from the mirin and sugar, combined with the savory umami notes from the soy sauce. The sauce has a mild, smoky flavor that pairs well with grilled eel.

Although eel sauce is most commonly used with eel dishes, it can also be used to add a sweet and savory element to other dishes. It complements sushi rolls, rice bowls, grilled vegetables, and even tempura as a dipping sauce.

Here is a table summarizing the characteristics of eel sauce:

ColorDark brown
AromaSweet and savory
FlavorSweet, savory, and slightly smoky
UsageGlaze for eel dishes, sushi, rice bowls, dipping sauce
Common CuisineJapanese

Key Differences

Now that we have explored the characteristics of fish sauce and eel sauce, let’s highlight the key differences between the two:

  1. Ingredients: Salt and fermented fish are the main components of fish sauce. Eel sauce consists of soy sauce, mirin, sugar, and sometimes dashi.
  2. Flavor: Fish sauce has a pungent, salty, and briny flavor with rich umami notes. Eel sauce offers a sweet, savory, and smoky taste due to the caramelization of sugars during the reduction process.
  3. Aroma: Fish sauce has a strong and distinct aroma, which can be overwhelming to some. Eel sauce, in contrast, has a pleasant and enticing aroma with its sweet and savory profile.
  4. Color: Fish sauce has a dark amber color, while eel sauce is dark brown and glossy.
  5. Usage: Fish sauce serves as a base for soups, stir-fries, marinades, and dipping sauces, adding depth to the flavor of the dish. Eel sauce is primarily used as a glaze for grilled or broiled eel dishes. It can also be enjoyed as a condiment or dipping sauce for sushi, rice bowls, and tempura.
  6. Common Cuisines: Fish sauce is found in Thai, Vietnamese, and Filipino cuisines, while eel sauce is associated with Japanese cuisine.

While both fish sauce and eel sauce contribute to the umami flavor profile, they have distinct characteristics that make them unique. It’s important to note that they cannot be used interchangeably in recipes due to their different flavors and purposes.

Health Considerations and Nutritional Value

Both fish sauce and eel sauce should be used in moderation due to their high sodium content. Fish sauce contains essential minerals and nutrients derived from the fish fermentation process. Individuals with specific health conditions, such as high blood pressure, should consume it in moderation or explore low-sodium alternatives.

Eel sauce, made primarily from soy sauce and mirin, also contains sodium. It is important to be mindful of the overall sodium intake when using eel sauce in dishes. For those with dietary restrictions or preferences, there are vegetarian and vegan alternatives available. These alternatives include using soy sauce or tamari as substitutes for fish sauce and teriyaki sauce as an alternative to eel sauce.

Substitutes and Alternatives

fish sauce bottles

If you’re unable to find fish sauce or prefer a vegetarian or vegan option, there are alternatives to consider. Soy sauce or tamari can be used as a substitute for fish sauce, although the flavor profile will be different. These alternatives provide a similar umami taste and can be used in various recipes to achieve a comparable result.

For eel sauce, a common alternative is teriyaki sauce. Teriyaki sauce offers a combination of sweet and savory flavors, making it a suitable replacement for eel sauce in many dishes. Additionally, a mixture of soy sauce and sweetener, such as honey or brown sugar, can be used to mimic the taste of eel sauce.

Culinary Applications and Pairings of Fish Sauce

1. Common Dishes and Cuisines Where Fish Sauce Is Used

Fish sauce, with its rich umami flavor and distinctive aroma, is a staple ingredient in culinary traditions across the globe. Fish sauce adds depth and complexity to many Southeast Asian dishes, including Thai, Vietnamese, and Filipino. Fish sauce gives vibrant curries, zesty salads, savory stir-fries, and fragrant noodle soups a satisfying savoriness.

Beyond Southeast Asia, fish sauce finds its way into the kitchens of other cultures as well. In Korean cuisine, for example, it contributes to the distinctiveness of kimchi, the iconic fermented cabbage dish. Japanese cuisine incorporates fish sauce in some regional specialties like miso soup or as a seasoning for grilled fish. In parts of China, fish sauce is employed as a seasoning in various dishes, adding a unique savory element to stir-fries and braises. Fish sauce is being used in dressings, marinades, and fusion dishes by adventurous Western chefs.

2. Recommended Flavor Combinations With Fish Sauce

Fish sauce possesses a transformative power, enhancing the flavors of other ingredients in delightful ways. Its briny and complex taste pairs well with a variety of complementary flavors.

For a burst of freshness, combining fish sauce with lime juice, lemongrass, and fresh herbs like cilantro or mint creates a harmonious balance. The acidity of citrus or vinegar can mellow and brighten the pungent notes of fish sauce, while the herbs provide a refreshing and aromatic component.

For a deeper and richer umami experience, fish sauce can be combined with ingredients like soy sauce, oyster sauce, or mushrooms. This combination amplifies the savory aspects of a dish, imparting a satisfying depth of flavor. Additionally, ingredients like ginger, garlic, and chili peppers can add warmth and complexity when paired with fish sauce, creating a delightful symphony of tastes.

3. Tips for Using Fish Sauce in Cooking

When using fish sauce in your culinary endeavors, you need to exercise moderation due to its potent flavor. Start with a small amount and increase it to achieve the desired taste. Remember, a little goes a long way.

Fish sauce is best added during cooking to blend with other ingredients. This enables the fish sauce to infuse the dish, creating a well-rounded taste profile.

To avoid overwhelming a dish with its strong aroma, you need to balance the fish sauce with other ingredients. Pair it with complementary flavors, such as citrus, herbs, or spices, to create a harmonious blend of tastes.

Lastly, when storing fish sauce, keep it in a cool, dark place to maintain its quality. Refrigeration fish sauce is not necessary but can help prolong its shelf life.

Culinary Applications and Pairings of Eel Sauce

1. Popular Dishes and Cuisines Featuring Eel Sauce

Eel sauce, with its sweet and savory flavors, is prized in many cultures, especially in East Asia. Eel sauce, also known as unagi sauce, is a key ingredient in unagi-don, grilled freshwater eel over rice. 

The eel is glazed with the rich and caramelized eel sauce, imparting a tantalizing combination of flavors that is both succulent and smoky.

Beyond Japan, eel sauce is also found in other Asian cuisines. In Chinese cooking, it is commonly used in dishes such as stir-fried noodles, stir-fried crab with curry, or as a dipping sauce for grilled meats. 

In Thai cuisine, eel sauce is sometimes incorporated into certain stir-fry recipes or used as a condiment for grilled seafood. The subtle sweetness and umami depth of eel sauce add a delightful complexity to these dishes, elevating their taste profiles to new heights.

Homemade Unagi Sauce (Eel Kobayashi Sauce Recipe)

2. Recommended Flavor Combinations With Eel Sauce

Eel sauce’s unique flavor enhancers add indulgence to many ingredients. Combining eel sauce with ingredients like ginger, garlic, and soy sauce creates a delightful umami-packed blend. The aromatic notes of ginger and garlic complement the sweet and savory nature of the sauce, while soy sauce adds depth and a touch of saltiness.

To accentuate the natural sweetness of eel sauce, incorporating ingredients like honey, brown sugar, or mirin can elevate its flavor even further. The addition of these sweet elements balances the savory aspects of the sauce, resulting in a harmonious blend that tantalizes the taste buds.

For a burst of freshness and brightness, incorporating citrus juices like lemon or lime can lend a tangy and vibrant dimension to the eel sauce. The citrusy notes help cut through the richness, providing a well-rounded flavor experience.

3. Tips for Incorporating Eel Sauce Into Recipes

When using eel sauce in your culinary endeavors, it’s important to remember its concentrated sweetness and depth of flavor. Begin by adding a small amount and tasting as you go, gradually adjusting to achieve the desired balance.

Eel sauce is commonly used as a glaze or drizzle over grilled or roasted meats, such as eel, chicken, or pork. Brush or spoon the sauce over the meat during cooking to caramelize and add flavor.

In addition to being a condiment or glaze, eel sauce can also be used as a dipping sauce or a flavoring agent in stir-fries and noodle dishes. Drizzle it over a bowl of steaming noodles or toss it with stir-fried vegetables to infuse the dish with its rich and luxurious flavor.

When storing eel sauce, it is recommended to refrigerate it to maintain its freshness and quality. Additionally, it’s advisable to use it within a reasonable timeframe to ensure optimal taste.


Understanding the differences between fish sauce and eel sauce allows you to appreciate the unique flavors they bring to your dishes. Fish sauce adds umami to Southeast Asian dishes, while eel sauce adds sweetness and savory notes to Japanese dishes.

Next time you’re exploring Asian recipes or dining at a restaurant, you’ll be equipped with the knowledge to identify and savor the flavors of fish sauce and eel sauce. So whether you’re cooking up a traditional Thai curry or enjoying a delicious plate of unadon, you’ll know the perfect sauce to elevate your culinary experience. Embrace the diversity of Asian condiments and savor the delightful nuances they bring to your meals.


How long does eel sauce last in the refrigerator?

Homemade or store-bought eel sauce can be refrigerated for several months. It is advisable to follow the storage instructions provided on the bottle and use it within the recommended time frame.

Can I use eel sauce as a dipping sauce?

Yes, eel sauce can be used as a dipping sauce for various dishes. Its sweet and savory flavors complement sushi, tempura, and other Japanese appetizers.

Is eel sauce safe to consume during pregnancy?

Eel sauce, made primarily from soy sauce and mirin, is generally safe to consume during pregnancy. However, it is always recommended to consult with a healthcare professional for specific dietary guidelines.

Are there any vegetarian alternatives to fish sauce and eel sauce?

Yes, there are vegetarian alternatives to fish sauce and eel sauce available in the market. Some options include soy sauce, tamari (a gluten-free soy sauce), coconut aminos, and mushroom-based sauces. These alternatives provide a similar umami flavor and can be used as substitutes in various recipes.

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