Unadon is a shortened version of the words unagi (Japanese eel, written as 鰻 or うなぎ) and donburi (“bowl”, usually abbreviated to “don” and written as 丼). So, unadon is eel served over rice in a bowl. When the same dish is served in a pretty square lacquer box, it is called unaju (鰻重) because of these tiered, lacquered jubako (重箱) boxes. Although basically the same dish as unadon, if you order unaju in a restaurant it will probably cost a bit more (those fancy jubako aren’t cheap). If the eel and rice are served separately, the dish is called nagayaki (長焼き), and in Nagoya there’s also a special way of eating broiled eel called hitsumabushi (櫃まぶし), in which the unagi is eaten of three or four courses with extra toppings and sometimes a soup.
This recipe is for a fast, simple unadon, and uses pre-grilled vacuum-packed eel fillets called kabayaki (蒲 焼). You can find kabayaki in the freezer section of most Asian grocery stores. They’re relatively inexpensive and convenient to use. All you have to do is thaw them out, heat them up, brush them with a bit of extra tare sauce (垂れ), and serve in unadon or sushi. There are two kinds of kabayaki you might run across either in a grocery store or restaurant:
Kansai style: aka Kyoto or Osaka-style broiled eel; this is probably the most common type of kabayaki that you will find in the US. Basically the eel is split down the belly, gutted and boned, butterflied, cut into square fillets, skewered, and dipped in a sweet, soy-based sauce before being broiled on a charcoal grill. Eel prepared in this way is supposed to be flavorful and crispy, and is also considered by some to be more “masculine” (if that sort of thing matters to you).
Kantō style: aka Tokyo-style broiled eel or shirayaki (白焼き); the eel is prepared in much the same way, except that the eel is split down the back, then skewered and broiled without sauce, and then steamed before being dipped in sauce and grilled again. This cooking method supposedly makes the eel moist and tender by removing some of the fat under the skin. I’ve been told that Kantō style unagi is better for making sushi, as its softer texture is easier to work with.
Regardless of what type of kabayaki you use, you can either heat it up in a frying pan or in your oven’s broiler (I prefer the broiler though, as it’s fast, easy, and produces a nice crispy fillet, plus I don’t have to worry about the eel sticking to the bottom of the pan) . If you don’t have an oven, you could also use a toaster oven. You can either buy premade eel sauce (Kikkoman makes a decent tare for eel), or make your own tare (it’s easy to do yourself, and any leftover eel sauce is delicious on yaki onigiri or rice the next day). If you want, you can decorate your unadon like I did in the photo by adding some vegetables or Japanese pickles to round out the meal (I used cucumber and takuan pickles, along with some shredded surimi). This recipe makes two servings.
- 1 whole kabayaki eel fillet
- sansho pepper (as topping, optional)
- ¼ cup soy sauce
- ¼ cup mirin
- 2½ tablespoons sugar
- 1½ tablespoons sake
To Make Eel Sauce:
1. Combine mirin and sake in a small saucepan and bring it to a boil to evaporate alcohol.
2. 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 20 minutes. Turn off the heat to cool it down.
Note: Extra eel sauce can be stored in the refrigerator for later use.
- Cut kabayki in half (or smaller, if necessary) to fit your serving bowls. Line a baking sheet with aluminum foil and brush lightly with oil (spray oil works well). Place eel on top.
- Without preheating, place the baking sheet in the middle rack of your oven, and broil on high for 7 minutes (no need to flip).
- After 7 minutes or so, remove eel from the oven and brush with eel sauce.
- Return to oven and broil for another 30 to 60 seconds (you should start to see bubbles on top of eel as the sauce carmelizes). Remove eel from oven.
- Scoop rice into bowls and pour or brush a little extra eel sauce on top of the rice.
- Place eel on top of rice and pour or brush on a bit more eel sauce. Sprinkle with ground sansho pepper if desired, and serve immediately.
last updated August 17, 2023