The Japanese Delicacy (XIII): Unadon

Unadon is a Japanese dish consisting of grilled eel and rice. The eel is thick and fatty. After roasting, it presents an appetizing texture - crisp on the outside and tender on the inside. Its sweet flavor and juicy texture make it popular. Many Japanese eat it to fight fatigue caused by the summer heat in Doyo no Ushi no Hi (Midsummer Day of the Ox).

What is Unadon


Unadon, short for unagi-don, is a classic Japanese dish. Don, an abbreviation of donburi, is a Japanese "rice bowl dish" consisting of fish, meat, or vegetables and served over steamed rice. Unagi is the Japanese word for freshwater eel, particularly the Japanese eel (Anguilla japonica).

Not to be confused with the anago (saltwater eel), which has a pungent fishy aftertaste. Unagi has a mild and sweet flavor, making it perfect for saucy preparations. And its soft and chewy flesh with a porous texture can absorb all the juices. Unagi is a common ingredient in Japanese cuisine and is usually served as kamabayaki, where the fish is split, gutted, boned, butterflies, cut into squares, skewered, dipped into a sweet tara sauce, and then grilled. The sauce consists of soy sauce, miso, sugar, and sake, providing the necessary caramelization during the grilling process. After grilling, the body is moist and tender while the skin is crispy and flavorful.

History of Unadon


The Japanese have been eating Unagi since the Jomon period (14,000-300). Kabayaki was developed in 1399, but the Unagi was cut into round slices and seasoned with salt, miso, vinegar, and wasabi rather than cut open and seasoned with tara sauce. It was not until the Edo period (1603-1868) that kabayaki became popular and the Japanese ate it with a sauce based on soy sauce and miso.

The history of donburi dates back to the Muromachi period (1330-1570). At that time, there was a dish called Hohan, which was originally a dish prepared at temples. Vegetables and grains were chopped and seasoned, then arranged on a bowl of white rice. The toppings consisted of five colors: red, green, white, yellow, and black to represent yin and yang and the Chinese Five Elements. In short, the dish was a bowl of rice topped with stewed vegetables and dashi (stock).

Today's donburi originated from unadon in the Bunka Bunsei Era (1804-1829) of the Edo period. It's said that Okubo Imasuke was the first person to make unadon. In the Edo period, restaurants would serve kabayaki in hot rice bran to keep warm. Imasuke was very busy and thought it was troublesome to remove the rice bran before eating the unagi. Therefore, he put the kabayaki on top of the hot rice to keep it warm and invented the unadon.

Other Unagi Dishes


Unaju: Unadon and unaju are basically the same, saving some tiny differences. unaju is served in a jubako box, a traditional Japanese lacquerware food box, rather than in a bowl. It uses more eel than unadon and usually comes with some side dishes and a cup of kimosui (soup with eel guts). In general, unaju is higher in grade and price than unadon.

Hitsumabushi: Hitsumabushi is a traditional Japanese dish that originated in Nagoya. It is similar to unadon, but the Unagi is sliced, and comes with various condiments. The dish is served in a unique way - it is divided into four portions. The first part is eaten directly with rice, the second part is eaten with rice and condiments, the third part is served with broth or tea to make chazuke (like a soup), and the fourth part can be eaten how you like.

Unagi Nigiri: It is a traditional type of nigiri sushi. It consists of hand-pressed sushi rice and a slice of grilled eel.

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