Unagi donburi, or unagi don or unadon for short, is a classic Japanese rice bowl dish. This delectable bowl of goodness is made of fluffy steamed rice topped with succulent grilled eel glazed in an umami sweet and savoury sauce. The rice provides the perfect base for soaking up all the deliciousness of the grilled saucy eel and balances out the rich flavours. It’s an easy to eat on-the-go dish that’s so satisfying and tasty that you’ll be craving it day after day!
What is Unadon?
Unadon is a popular Japanese meal consisting of grilled eel (unagi) brushed with sweet and savoury unagi sauce and served atop a bed of rice. It’s one of the classic donburi (rice bowl) dishes that Japanese people love to eat for a filling lunch or dinner. The preparation of Unadon involves grilling the eel until it is crispy on the outside and tender on the inside. The eel is glazed with the delicious teriyaki-like sauce, which enhances its flavour and gives it a caramelized finish. The grilled eel is then placed atop a bowl of steaming hot rice, creating an irresistible combination of flavors and textures. In Japan, Unadon is also served as part of a bento box as well as a standalone meal. It’s considered a bit of a delicacy and is definitely something to indulge in!
Japanese Custom of Eating Ell on “Doyo no Ushi no hi”
In Japan, there is a custom of eating eel on the Midsummer Day of the Ox – called “Doyo no ushi no hi” in Japanese. “Doyo” refers to the 18 days (or 19 days) before the beginning of spring, summer, autumn, and winter. “Ushi no hi” is the day of the “Ushi” assigned to the zodiac.
There are various theories as to why people started eating eels during the midsummer day of the ox.
This tradition started in the Edo period when a scholar named Gennai Hiraga put up a sign at an eel restaurant that read, “Today is the day of the ox”. After that, eel became eaten in summer even though winter is the season of eel! This marketing spread and is said to be the beginning of the current custom of eating eel rice on the midsummer day of the ox.
In addition, it is said that eating not only eel on the midsummer day of the ox, but also udon, umeboshi, and other foods starting with an “U” sound, as well as black soybeans, clams, eggplants, and other dark foods. Japanese people believe that it will bring good health.
In 2023, Doyo no ushi no hi falls on the 30th of July.
reference : https://saijilab.com/ushinohi/
Unadon Common ingredients
Cooked Rice – Rice plays an essential role in any donburi dishes. It provides the base of the dish and soaks up all the delicious flavour. When cooked properly, the grains should be separate yet sticky enough to hold together when eaten with chopsticks or a fork. See this post how to cook rice with a rice cooker and without a rice cooker.
Eel Kabayaki – Eel kabayaki is made from grilled Japanese freshwater eel. The eel fillets are pre-prepared with the bones removed, dipped in the unagi sauce, and grilled on skewers over an open flame charcoal until its skin becomes crispy and caramelized. In Tokyo, the eel is broiled before applying the sauce, which is called shirayaki. In fact, there is a big difference between Kansai and Kanto region when it comes to cutting and cooking eel to make kabayaki. But do not worry about the difference, as not many Japanese homecooks are making it from scratch but rather buying it already filleted and cooked. You can buy those frozen from Japanese grocery stores and Asian markets.
Eel Sauce (Unagi no tare) – Eel sauce or unagi sauce is a thick, savoury-sweet sauce served with unagi. It has a dark brown color similar to teriyaki sauce but with a thicker, more viscous consistency. The ingredients for eel sauce include soy sauce, mirin, sake, and sugar. Some recipes also incorporate dashi broth or eel head and bone for added umami flavor. The resulting mixture is simmered until it reduces into a thick syrupy texture.
Garnishes – Common garnishes for unagidon include sansho Japanese pepper, thinly sliced green onions, toasted sesame seeds, or shiso leaves (a type of Japanese herb with a minty flavour) and shredded nori sheets. These accents not only add visual interest to the dish but also complement its flavours and textures.
Cooking Process Outlines
- Start to defrost an eel fillet.
- Cook rice – I used a rice cooker.
- Prepare Unagi Sauce – follow this recipe to make your own homemade unagi sauce.
- Cook the defrosted eel fillet and brush with unagi sauce.
Tips for Making Unadon
- Unadon is known for its rich flavour and unique texture. Making Unadon may seem like an intimidating task, but with these tips, you can easily make this delicious dish at home.
- Choose the right type of eel when making Unadon, it is important to choose the right type of eel. The most commonly used eel for this dish is called unagi, which is Japanese freshwater eel. You can find pre-cooked unagi that has been grilled or broiled with unagi sauce glaze at many Asian grocery stores.
- To heat up the frozen Unagi eel fillets, sprinkle 1 tbsp of sake. The eel fillets will be plumped and fluffier due to the effect of alcohol.
- Defrost the frozen unagi fillets properly to prevent uneven heating.
What to Serve with ?
This classic Japanese dish features succulent grilled eel served on a bed of fluffy rice, topped with sweet and savoury unagi sauce that will tantalize your taste buds. But you can make it even more delicious with the addition of some mouthwatering sides.
this traditional Japanese soup is made from fermented soybean paste, dashi broth, and other flavourful ingredients. Its rich umami flavour pairs perfectly with the flavours of the unagi.
For those who prefer something lighter, clear soup is an excellent option. Made from a simple broth, it provides a refreshing contrast to the hearty unagi.
What really takes this dish to the next level is pairing it with egg drop soup. The light and flavorful broth is made from eggs whisked into simple dashi broth, creating delicate ribbons of egg throughout the soup. It’s the perfect accompaniment to the rich flavours of unadon.
In Japan, you can even find unadon with egg. The rice is topped with eggs that can be scrambled or made into a thinly sliced omelette then covered with the saucy grilled eel. It adds extra protein and the texture and flavours go really well together.
If you’re looking for something tangy to cut through the richness of the unagi, pickled daikon is just what you need. These crunchy pickled radish slices are pickled in vinegar and other seasonings to create a zesty side dish that perfectly complements your unadon.
Another staple side dish of Japanese cuisine. These pickles are made by fermenting vegetables in leftover rice bran – creating a unique sour-sweet flavour that’s impossible to resist!
A : Unaju, as the name suggests, refers to eel kabayaki on top of rice served in a rectangle box called jubako (重箱). So the difference between unadon and unaju is how it is served. They are served in different containers. Unadon is served in a rice bowl (donburi) and unaju is served in a jubako.
A : Unaju is the large pieces of eel kabayaki on top of rice served in a jubako, and the definition of hitsumabushi is small pieces of kabayaki eel on top of rice in an ohitsu. Hitsumabushi typically comes with condiments such as finely chopped scallions, shredded nori seaweed, grated wasabi, pickles and dashi broth for ochazuke at unagi specialty restaurants.
A: This is not commonly done. If you want to use fresh eel and not the frozen pre-prepared kabayaki fillets then you will need to prepare the eel on your own which is difficult.
Unadon (Unagi Donburi)
- 1 Frozen Unagi Kabayaki Fillet
- 4 tbsp unagi sauce *1
- 3 cups cooked rice *2
- 2 tbsp shredded nori seaweeds (optional)
- 2 tbsp finely chopped scallions (optionnal)
- Defrost the frozen unagi kabayaki fillet at room temperature and halve the fillet. *3
- Place the unagi fillets in a frying pan skin side down over medium heat and sprinkle 1 tbsp sake over the unagi fillets *4
- Put a lid on and turn the heat down to steam-cook the fillets for about 3 minutes.
- Serve rice in a donburi bowl and brush with unagi sauce.
- Place the unagi fillets over the rice and pour more unagi sauce over the fillets.
- Sprinkle shredded nori seaweeds and garnish with finely chopped scallions to serve. *5