unagi barbecued eel

Grilled Unagi – Japanese Barbecued Eel

Unagi is a Japanese barbecued eel that is a delicacy. Served with sansho and a bed of rice, you’ve got yourself a true traditional Japanese meal.

Grilled eels (unagi) have been a popular Japanese dish for thousands of years. It was once a common and fairly inexpensive meal. But with the dwindling eel population, it has because a relatively expensive delicacy.

Many people believe that eel gives extra stamina during the hottest time of the year. Therefore, it’s customary to eat barbecued eel on the Day of the Ox in the summer. To this day, eel is imported into Japan to maintain this custom.

Grilled unagi is prized for its rich flavor and texture – crisp on the outside and tender on the inside.

Traditionally, eels are grilled over hot charcoals and then steamed to remove excess fat. Then they’re glazed with a sweet sauce and grilled again. But the high heat of a SABER® grill can burn off the excess fat without having to steam it.

How to Serve Barbecued Eel

Depending on your dinner, you may want to serve eel on skewers as appetizers or as the main entree with a bed of rice (unagi don).

Whether your unagi is an appetizer or entree, have sansho at the table. Sansho is a Japanese pepper that is often used to season the barbecued eel at the table.

What Eel Should I Grill?

Unagi is traditionally fresh water eel. But there are variations to the meal and meat used.

The dojo loach is a small eel-like fish related to carp that is sometimes used in place of eel. There are Japanese restaurants who specialize in cooking dojo. Cook dojo like a casserole with burdock root and eggs.

You can grill conger eel, brush it with the unagi sauce and serve it like sushi on top of a finger-sized bed of rice.

Pike eel is a salt water eel commonly served in Kyoto but not Tokyo. It is cooked like unagi – grilled and basted with unagi glaze.

Grilling Eel at Home

When grilling eel at home, the key is to find a local Asian store for the ingredients. If you don’t have sake and mirin and can’t find it locally, you can substitute with other ingredients.

Substitute mirin with a dry sherry, sweet marsala or rice vinegar and sugar. Add 1/2 teaspoon per one tablespoon (one to two tablespoons per 1/2 cup). For this recipe, use 1/4 cup sherry, marsala or rice vinegar with 0.5 – 1 tablespoons sugar.

Substitute sake with rice wine vinegar and water or white grape juice. You want to substitute with a 1:3 ratio. For 1/4 cup sake, use one tablespoon rice wine vinegar and three tablespoons water or juice. For the below recipe, you want to use about 3/8 tablespoon rice wine vinegar and a pinch over 3/4 tablespoon water or juice.


  • 2 eel fillets (approximately 1 pound of meat)
  • 1 ½ tablespoons sake tbs
  • ¼ cup mirin
  • 2 ½ tablespoons granulated sugar (or brown sugar)
  • ¼ cup soy sauce


  • Combine mirin and sake in a small saucepan and bring to a boil to evaporate alcohol.
  • Add sugar. Stir until completely dissolved.
  • Add soy sauce. Bring to a boil.
  • Reduce the heat and continue to simmer for about 10 minutes or until thickened. Remove from heat.
  • Preheat grill.
  • Butterfly the Unagi so that it can be grilled flat.
  • Place on the grill with the skin down.
  • Close the lid and grill for about 3 minutes. Flip and grill for another 3 minutes.
  • Baste the skin with the Unagi sauce. Flip. Grill on high for about 1 minute.
  • Baste the meat. Flip. Grill on high for about 1 minute.
  • Remove from the grill and serve with hot rice.

japanese barbecued eel

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