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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- 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 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 2 weeks.
Preheat the broiler* with a rack placed about 6" (15 cm) away from the top heating element (in the middle) for 3 minutes. 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/high until the surface is blistered a bit, about 5-7 minutes. No need to flip. *Typical broiler setting: Low/450ºF/232ºC, Medium/500ºF/260ºC, and High/550ºF/288ºC.
In half way through, brush the unagi with the sauce once.
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.
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.
Unagi Sauce (Unagi Tare): I updated the sauce recipe to ⅓ 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 below and store the sauce in the refrigerator for up to 2-3 months.
My original Unagi Sauce Recipe:
- ¾ cup soy sauce
- ¾ cup mirin
- ½ cup (3.5 oz/100 g) sugar
- ¼ cup sake.
- Combine the ingredients in the saucepan.
- Reduce the sauce for 20 minutes, or until thicken (instead of 10 mins as written above).
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: 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.