Have fun making one of Japanese favorites, Unagi Don (grilled eel rice bowl), in your own kitchen. Sweet caramelized homemade unagi sauce drizzled over perfectly grilled unagi and steamed rice, this recipe will make any Japanese food enthusiasts mouth water.
In my last post, I talked about the delicious char-grilled unagi (eel) I had at an unagi specialty restaurant in Yokohama during my Japan trip. For those of you who are not familiar with Japanese cuisine, you might be thinking we are barbaric eaters! Well, to be honest with you, I grew up eating eels without thinking it was a foreign ingredient. When unagi was served, it always looked like a typical fish fillet to me. Don’t you agree by looking at the picture above?
I was surprised when I found out what eels actually looked like in an aquarium at a young age. It was hard to connect the dots between the snake looking fish in the water and “the fish” I was eating, and I was shocked that I actually liked eating them. For better or for worse, that experience did not stop me from enjoying unagi all these years. The combination of delicious warm rice and glistering sweet caramel-like unagi sauce (we call it “unagi no tare”) over the perfectly grilled unagi is simply irresistible.
Rich in vitamins A and E, and Omega-3 fatty acids, the great nutritious benefits of eel is another reason why Japanese people enjoy eating unagi. From Edo Period (1600-1850), we have a tradition of eating unagi on a particular mid-summer day called doyō-no ushi-no-hi (土用の丑の日) in order to gain stamina from the hot summer heat.
Unagi sushi are pretty popular and available at most sushi restaurants, but the satisfaction of eating the perfectly grilled unagi on top of warm rice is completely different and can not be compared. The aroma of the sauce alone is enough to make my mouth water. If you are planning to visit Japan, I hope you will find a good unagi restaurant and give it a try.
Sometimes my local Japanese supermarket sells imported unagi from Japan. They are usually more expensive and the cost is between $18-$25 USD each (Frozen unagi from other countries are usually around $9 USD each.). If you are able to find Japanese unagi in your local market, you are in for a real treat! The unagi can be kept frozen until you’re ready to enjoy since they come in vacuum-sealed package. This unagi is from Kagoshima, Japan.
How Unagi is Prepared
Most Japanese don’t buy a live eel to cook at home. We buy pre-grilled unagi or the ones that are grilled and vacuum-packed.
This style of cooking is called kabayaki (蒲焼), similar to Teriyaki. It’s a very typical way to prepare unagi and other fish that can be prepared the same way as well. Basically the fish is split down the back (or belly), gutted and boned, butterflied, cut into square fillets, skewered, and dipped in a sweet soy sauce based sauce before broiled on a charcoal grill. In the Tokyo region, the skewered eel is first broiled without the sauce, and we call it Shirayaki (白焼き). Then the unagi are steamed, before being dipped in the sauce and grilled again.
When unagi is served in a bowl like above, it’s called Unadon (鰻丼). But when it’s served in a fancy square lacquer box, it is called Unaju (鰻重) because the tiered lacquered boxes are called jubako (重箱).
Today I will share how to prepare Unagi Don (Unadon) using a vacuum-packed unagi along with a homemade unagi sauce. You can buy premade Unagi Sauce from a Japanese (or Asian) market, but you can easily make it at home. With just 4 ingredients, you can quickly whip up a sweet caramelized sauce to flavor the grilled eel. If I have any leftover unagi sauce, I’ll also use it to dress Yaki Onigiri (Grilled Rice Balls). For the minimal effort it takes to make delicious bowl of unagi don, it’s truly worth it.
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- Start making Unagi Sauce. Combine mirin and sake in a small saucepan and bring it to a boil to evaporate alcohol.
- Add sugar and stir until sugar is completely dissolved. Then add soy sauce and bring it to a boil. Then reduce heat and continue cooking on simmer for 10 minutes, or until thicken. Turn off the heat to cool it down.
- Preheat your oven to broil (high/550F (290C) for 3 minutes. Meanwhile cut Unagi in half (or maybe third) to fit inside your serving bowls. Line the baking sheet with aluminum foil and brush oil lightly (I use spray oil). Place unagi on top.
- Put the baking sheet in the MIDDLE rack of your oven, and broil on high for 5-7 minutes (no need to flip).
- After 7 minutes or so, take it out and brush the Unagi Sauce over.
- Continue to broil for another 30 seconds to 60 seconds until you see bubbles on top of Unagi.
- Serve rice in a bowl and pour or brush Unagi Sauce on the rice. Serve Unagi on top of rice and pour/brush more Unagi Sauce. Serve immediately. You can also sprinkle some Sansho.
Unagi Sauce (Unagi Tare): I updated the sauce recipe to 1/3 of my original recipe for just 2 fillets (However, the step-by-step pictures above show my original recipe portion).
I usually make unagi sauce with the following recipe and use it whenever I need instead of making it in small portion each time. You can store the sauce in the refrigerator.
My original recipe:
3/4 cup soy sauce
3/4 cup mirin
1/2 cup (4.4oz/125g) sugar
1/4 cup sake.
Reduce the sauce for 20 minutes, or until thicken (instead of 10 mins as written above).
For re-heating unagi, you can use a frying pan, but I recommend you to use the oven broiler. If you don't have an oven, you can use an oven toaster as well.
Recipe by Namiko Chen of Just One Cookbook. All images and content on this site are copyright protected. Please do not use my images without my permission. If you’d like to share this recipe on your site, please re-write the recipe and link to this post as the original source. Thank you.
Update: Recipe updated in July 2012