Have fun making one of the Japanese favorites, Unadon (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.
Unagi sushi is 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. This classic dish is called Unadon (鰻丼). The aroma of the sweet caramelized unagi sauce alone is enough to make my mouth water.
Unadon is a classic Japanese dish that consists of steamed rice topped with grilled eel fillets that are glazed with a sweetened soy-based sauce (called tare) and caramelized, preferably over charcoal fire. Unadon is a short word for Unagi (eel) Donburi (rice bowl dish).
For those of you who are not familiar with Japanese cuisine, you might think we are barbaric eaters! Well, to be honest with you, I grew up eating eels without thinking they were strange food. 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 the 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. For better or for worse, that experience did not stop me from enjoying unagi all these years.
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.
How Unagi is Prepared
Most Japanese home cooks don’t buy a live eel to cook at home. We buy pre-grilled unagi or the ones that are grilled and vacuum-packed.
My local Japanese supermarket sells imported unagi from Japan. They are usually cost 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 a vacuum-sealed package. This unagi is from Kagoshima, Japan.
The style of cooking unagi 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 is steamed, before being dipped in the sauce and grilled again.
When unagi is served in a big rice bowl, it’s called Unadon (鰻丼) and 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).
Unagi Sauce (unagi no tare) for Unadon
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 unadon, it’s truly worth it.
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Unadon (Unagi Don)
Unagi Sauce for 2 Fillets
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 the low heat/simmer and continue simmering for 10 minutes (or 20 minutes if you're making the full amount), or until the sauce slightly thickens. Toward the end of cooking, you will see more bubbles
- Remove from the heat. As it cools, the sauce will thicken more. You can store the sauce in an airtight jar and keep in the refrigerator for up to 3 months.
- Preheat the broiler* to medium (500ºF/260ºC) with a rack placed about 6" (15 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 (Brush/spray the foil with oil). Cut the unagi in half (or thirds, depending on the serving bowl size to fit the unagi fillet) and place it on the foil, skin side down. Broil it medium (500ºF/260ºC) 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.
- Broil again for 30-60 seconds until you see bubbles 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.
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. Serve immediately. You can also sprinkle Japanese sansho pepper.
- 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 content have been updated in November 2017.