Ponzu sauce is a Japanese seasoning sauce often served with sashimi, shabu-shabu, and other Japanese favorites. It offers a complex but light flavor profile that features fruity sweetness, bitterness, and umami. Ponzu sauce has not always been the easiest thing to find outside of Japan, so there are quite a few improvised substitutes. If there is no ponzu sauce in your kitchen and you need some right away, you have a few options including the ponzu sauce substitutes below:
Your best bet: Make your own ponzu sauce
Ponzu sauce is not the easiest condiment to make from scratch but it can be done, especially if you order the ingredients online. In Japan, ponzu sauce is usually made from scratch with fresh versions widely considered vastly superior to bottled versions. The typical ponzu sauce recipe lists :
- Rice vinegar
- Bonito flakes (katsuobushi)
- Kombu (sometimes written as konbu)
- Citrus juice
Mirin is the most traditional option for the wine component, though some recipes use sake or a combination of mirin and sake. The mirin brings a sweeter flavor so you can use it to tone down the bitter or tart notes in your ponzu sauce, or you can use the sake instead because of its stronger flavor. Similarly, bonito flakes are sometimes replaced with dashi.
The traditional citrus for ponzu sauce is yuzu, but yuzu juice is not always easy to find in the West. Cooks sometimes use the combination of grapefruit and lemon juice to replicate the flavor yuzu. Lemon juice by itself can work as a yuzu substitute in a pinch.
You will have to simmer all the ingredients together except for the citrus juice, which you will add only after everything else has cooled.
A decent second choice: Worcestershire sauce
The Western product that is closest to ponzu sauce in flavor profile is Worcestershire sauce. It contains tamarind and anchovies, which replicate the tart citrus juice and bonito flakes from ponzu sauce.
Some have theorized that the similarity is not accidental and that Worcestershire sauce was an attempt to copy the flavors in ponzu sauce rather than those in Indian seasonings as is commonly believed. Worcestershire sauce has the additional benefit of being widely available all over the world and is a staple in many cooks’ spice cabinets.
The main drawback of Worcestershire sauce is that it does include spices that distract from the very clean and light flavor of ponzu sauce; however, the main elements are similar. Worcestershire sauce works best as a substitute for ponzu sauce in its role as a marinade.
In a pinch: Shoyu
Commercial ponzu typically contains shoyu, which improves its shelf stability. If that is the flavor profile that you are trying to replace, shoyu might work as a substitute. Shoyu will work best if you want to use it as a marinade to which you will be adding other flavorful ingredients.
If you want to use it as a dipping sauce or table condiment, you can add lemon juice and vinegar to it to replace the missing acidity. Shoyu by itself will provide dishes with similar umami notes as those of the katsuobushi and the kombu.
Nam prik pla is a Thai condiment made with fish sauce, lime juice, and hot chilies. While the hot chilies would be out of place in most of the Japanese dishes that require ponzu, the other two ingredients won’t be.