Sweet caramelized homemade unagi sauce drizzled over perfectly grilled unagi and steamed rice, this Unadon (Eel Rice) will make any Japanese food enthusiasts mouth water.
Unagi sushi is a mainstay item at most sushi restaurants, but have you tried unagi rice bowl before? This classic Japanese dish is called Unadon (鰻丼) or Unaju (鰻重), or you might have known it as eel rice.
The Japanese have a special affection for Unadon because the satisfaction of eating perfectly grilled unagi over a bed of warm rice is incomparable. Oh, and the aroma of the sweet caramelized sauce…that alone is enough to make my mouth water.
What is Eel Rice (Unadon & Unaju)
Eel Rice is a beloved Japanese dish consists of steamed rice topped with grilled eels that are glazed with a sweetened soy-based sauce (called tare) and caramelized, preferably over a charcoal fire.
When grilled unagi is served in a big rice bowl called donburi, we call it Unadon (鰻丼), a short for unagi donburi. When the unagi is served in a fancy rectangle lacquered box with the lid on, we call it Unaju (鰻重) because these boxes are called jubako (重箱).
How Eels Are Cooked
This particular cooking method is known as Kabayaki (蒲焼), similar to Teriyaki. It’s a very common way to prepare eels and other fish in Japan.
This is how the unagi-specialized chefs prepare the eels. Live eels are split down the back (or belly), gutted and boned, butterflied, and cut into square fillets. Then the fillets are skewered, dipped in a sweet soy-based sauce, and 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 is steamed, before being dipped in the sauce and grilled again.
Dining at Unagi Restaurant in Japan
When you go to unagi specialized restaurants in Japan, the menu typically offers both Unadon and Unaju and there are 3 ranks for the price whether you order Unadon or Unaju.
- The premium grade is called Tokujo (特上) or Matsu (松, pine)
- The superior grade is called Jo (上) or Take (竹, bamboo)
- The average grade is called Nami (並) or Ume (梅, plum)
According to the unagi restaurants, the price is usually related to the weight (amount) of unagi and not necessarily the quality of unagi.
Tradition: Eat Unagi on Mid-Summer Day
Unagi (freshwater eel) is considered an expensive delicacy in Japan, and it’s not an everyday dish. I did a quick research and found out that 26.2% of people eat unagi “about once every 6 months”, followed by “once every 2 to 3 months” at 16.8%, “less than once a year” at 16.1%, and “once a year” at 15.8%.
So when do most people eat unagi? You will see big banners and carts of eel packages in the supermarkets right before the mid-summer day.
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 to beat the heat. In 2021, it falls on to July 28th.
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.
How to Make Eel Rice at Home
Ingredients You’ll Need
- Unagi (Eel) fillets
- Unagi sauce – you can get a bottle of eel sauce but it’s SO easy to make it at home (I’ll show you!)
- Steamed rice
Japanese home cooks don’t buy a live eel to cook at home. They buy pre-grilled eel fillets and just reheat them before serving. Here in the US, you can purchase grilled eels that have been vacuum-sealed in Japanese/Asian grocery stores or this online shop.
My local Japanese supermarkets sell imported unagi from Japan (all from Kagoshima prefecture) and they usually cost between $30-40 each (compared to the frozen eels from other countries, which cost around $10 each). If you are able to find Japanese unagi in your local market, you are in for a real treat!
Overview: Cooking Step
- Prepare the homemade eel sauce (see below).
- Broil eel fillets and brush the eel sauce right before taking them out.
- Serve rice in a large rice bowl (donburi), brush with sauce, and serve eel fillets on top.
How To Make Homemade Eel Sauce (Unagi no Tare)
Today I will share how to prepare Unadon with my homemade eel sauce (unagi sauce). You can buy a bottle of unagi sauce at a Japanese/Asian market, but you can easily make it at home. All you need is soy sauce, mirin, sake, and sugar!
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 brush on my grilled rice balls to make Yaki Onigiri.
What to Serve With Unadon
It takes minimal effort to make delicious unadon, and it’s truly worth it to prepare this dish at home!
Unadon (Unagi Don)
- 2 unagi (eel) fillets (1 fillet is roughly 5.6 oz/160 g; defrosted)
- Japanese sansho pepper (for toppings; optional)
Unagi Sauce for 2 Fillets
- Gather all the ingredients.
To Make Unagi Sauce
- In a small saucepan, add mirin, sake, sugar.
- Turn on the heat to medium heat and whisk all the mixture. Then add soy sauce and bring it to a boil.
- Once boiling, reduce heat to a gentle simmer (you should see bubbles around the edges) and continue simmering for 10-15 minutes (or 20 minutes if you're making the full amount). The liquid should reduce to roughly ⅓ of the original amount (The mark on a chopstick inserted in the sauce will give you a rough estimate).
- Toward the end of cooking, you will see more bubbles. When the sauce thickens (check with the chopstick again to see if the sauce is ⅓ of the original amount), remove from the heat. As it cools, the sauce will thicken more. If you feel you've reduced too much, add a bit of water to loosen up and cook slightly more to the right consistency. You can store the sauce in an airtight jar and keep in the refrigerator for up to 3 months.
- Preheat the broiler* to High (550ºF/288ºC) with a rack placed about 8" (20 cm) away from the top heating element (in the center of the oven) for 5 minutes. *Broiler setting: Low (450ºF/232ºC), Medium (500ºF/260ºC), and High (550ºF/288ºC). I usually use medium (6" away) or high (8" away). When broiling, you don't control the temperature in the oven; instead, you control the distance between the broiler and the surface of the food. It's similar to using hotter and cooler zones on your grill.
- Line a baking sheet with foil for easy cleaning and brush/spray the foil with oil. Cut the unagi in half (or thirds, depending on the serving bowl size to fit the unagi fillet).
- Place it on the foil, skin side down. Broil the unagi until the surface is blistered a bit, about 5-7 minutes. No need to flip.
- Open the oven and brush the unagi with the sauce. Then broil again for 30-60 seconds until you see the sauce bubbling on top of unagi.
- Preheat the oven to 425°F/218ºC with a rack placed in the middle and bake the unagi on parchment paper until the surface is blistered a bit, about 10-12 minutes. No need to flip. Brush the unagi with the sauce and bake again for 30-60 seconds until you see the sauce bubbling on top of unagi.
To Pan Fry
- Wrap the unagi in foil (similar to this recipe) and reheat on low heat for 5-8 minutes. You won't get nice blisters/chars if you use this method.
- 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. Since I had a kinome (bud of Japanese sansho pepper tree), I garnish it on top (optional). You can also sprinkle Japanese sansho pepper at the table. Serve immediately.
- To serve in the jubako (Japanese lacquered box), it looks nice to serve 2 pieces (the entire fillet), overlapping each other.
- You can keep the leftovers in an airtight container and store in the refrigerator for 3 days or in the freezer for 2 weeks.
Update: The post was originally published on May 31, 2012. The recipe was updated in July 2012. The images and blog content have been updated in July 2021.