Japanese Donburi: Heavenly Taste in a Bowl

Donburi: Identifying the Meaning Behind The Name

It is a well-known fact all over the world that the Asian nations have a high affinity towards rice dishes; more so compared to their western counterparts. A good example is in Japan, where in their local dishes features rice not just as a supplement to the main dish, but rather a necessary pairing or even a star component of the dish, a few examples of this are onigiri, sushi, and donburi.

A good example to support this claim is the donburi bowls. Donburi is a local Japanese dish which features a generous serving of rice served in a bowl. The name “donburi” itself signifies that the food is served in a bowl since the word translates directly to “bowl” in native Japanese tongue.

Basically, a donburi is a rice meal served on top of a bowl. The rice is accompanied by toppings, sauces and garnish. Since rice goes well with pretty much anything, there are quite a lot of donburi options to suit one’s own preference - it can be beef, pork, chicken, fish or seafood, among many others.

A Brief History of The Donburi Bowl

The history of donburi is a long and rich one, that intertwines with the evolution of Japanese culture itself. Its predecessor was the “houhan”, which was a religious dish of some sort back, back in the 1300’s. It was considered to be the first rice bowl dish, topped with varieties of vegetables that are colored yellow, red, green and black. The colors are representative of certain Buddhism theories, such as “Yin and Yang” and “The Five Elements”. This dish was often cooked and served at temples.

With the unification of Japan in the 1600’s, Japan started to embrace modernization. Plenty of aspects of their culture evolved during this time, including their food scene. With the increasing industrialization and commercialization of Japan, the preferences of the people soon changed from their old traditionalist ways. In fact, the first donburi was created to allow moviegoers to enjoy a satisfying rice dish while watching a movie at the theater.

The first variant of donburi in its current form was the “una-don”, which was a rice bowl dish topped with eel, with “una” meaning unagi or eel, and “don” meaning rice bowl. During the Edo Period, the popularity of rice bowls flourished as the amount of people who were settling in Edo (now Tokyo) started to increase. As a number of people who populated Edo increased, the need for jobs increased as well, which is a reason why the restaurant industry started booming at the time. Given the Japanese’ affinity for rice, there were dedicated places that served rice, such as  “chameshi-ya” or specialty rice cooked in Japanese tea, or restaurants serving rice bowls. Of course, there were restaurants dedicated to rice bowl with toppings (donburi) that were born during this time.

A major change in the food scene changed when Emperor Meiji ascended the throne, signifying the beginning of the Meiji Restoration. During this time, Japan started opening their nation to western influence. Even traditional Japanese cooking changed when Emperor Meiji introduced western cooking styles, such as deep-frying. Another major feat for the local Japanese scene during this period was that the ban on eating pork was finally lifted.

Since the 1800’s to 1900’s, donburi continued to evolve through more options. Individual prefectures mastered their own regional version, and the changing times allowed restaurants to be more adventurous with their rice topping pairings.  To this day, it continues to be a popular dish among both Japanese locals and tourists alike.

Donburi Menu: The Different Donburi Bowl Varieties

Among the many varieties of donburi that the Japanese have to offer, there are several variants that have solidified their status into the hearts and stomachs of the Japanese. These are also the more popular variants, which one would most likely find on a Japanese restaurant menu.

The first donburi, which is the una-don or unadon has happily maintained its popularity among the Japanese people. The combination of grilled eel, sweet soy sauce, and rice has went from being a movie house dish, into a staple dish among Japanese restaurants.

Another popular variation of the donburi is the tendon. The “ten” in the name of the dish actually means “tempura”, which is the topping of choice for this particular variant. This style of donburi also emerged during the 1800’s, which was the time when tempura first claimed its way to fame. Aside from prawns or shrimps, the rice bowl toppings also include vegetables and seafood bits that have been covered with batter and deep-fried, called “kakiage”.

Another popular variant of donburi in Japan is the oyakodon. Its name oozes with Japanese humor as “oyako” translates to “mother and child”. The reason for such odd naming choice is because this type of rice bowl has pieces of chicken chopped and cooked with the egg. The name mother and child refers to the chicken and the egg that are both present in the dish. This variant of donburi has become very popular in Japan, that it paved way for a version that uses salmon sashimi instead of chicken. However, the name was not changed and “oyako” was used to refer to the salmon variety as well.

One of the most popular, if not the most popular variant of donburi even outside of Japan is the katsudon. The rice bowl topped with breaded pork cutlets has gained a massive following all over the world, that even western restaurants have opened up in homage to this particular dish. The mix of pork cutlets, Worcestershire-based sauce, and shredded cabbage is a feast of tastes for anyone eating it. An interesting fact about katsudon as well, is that the word katsu also means “to win” in Japan. Hence, it has been customary for students and athletes to eat katsudon prior to a test or competition.

For those who prefer eating beef over pork, the perfect donburi type is the gyudon. A gyudon features rice topped with tasty slices of beef and soy sauce. It is simple, but the three elements combined makes up a delicious and filling meal.

While the options mentioned above are among the popular options, there are other, more unique options such as karedon which features curry sauce as the star topping, and chukadon which features Chinese-style stir-fried vegetables and seafood topping to accompany the rice.

A Quick, and Easy Fool-Proof Oyako Donburi Recipe

One of the best things about donburi is that it is extremely easy to recreate at home. It would only require very basic cooking knowledge, and being able to cook rice. One of the easiest types to cook at home would be oyakodon since it could make use of pieces of leftover chicken as its base ingredient. In fact, the first oyakodon’s were made by Japanese restaurants to move out the leftover chicken from the previous day.

Before sauteing the chicken, the first requirement is for it to be sliced into small parts. It would come in handy if the chicken parts were leftovers from preparing another dish since that would mean they are already cut into pieces. The best size in order for the chicken to cook quickly and evenly would be at an inch of thickness.

The chicken is sauteed in a mixture of mirin, sake, dashi, soy sauce, and vinegar. It is important that the mirin and sake be boiled first at medium heat, before adding the next ingredients. After having the dashi, soy sauce and vinegar added to the pan, the chicken and onions are added together. The average cooking time for the chicken is at around ten minutes, however, it is still necessary to inspect if the meat has already cooked sufficiently.

Once the ten-minute mark is done, the scrambled eggs can be added to the pan. By this time, the pan can be covered and left alone to cook. However, the person responsible for cooking must be alert in case the egg sticks to the walls of the pan too much. To prevent this, the pan can be shaken occasionally. A few minutes before removing the toppings from the pan, green options can be added as garnishing on top.

The whole process should take less than thirty minutes, and this would already include assembling the rice bowl. While the oyako and rice are already filling, adding donburi sauce can turn the dish into something that is truly Japanese.

Easy Donburi Sauce Recipe

While the rice and the topping itself are enough for a fulfilling meal, the extra toppings, garnishes, and the sauce are the elements that elevate the dish to the next level. Of course, the basic donburi would most likely be accompanied by a basic donburi sauce. The usual donburi sauce is sweet and tangy, which comes from the mixture of soy sauce, mirin, brown sugar and cooking sake.

Luckily, anyone who has tried their hand at cooking donburi at home can also make the accompanying sauce. After all, not everyone lives in Japan and has access to ready made in-store sauces. The procedure is simple to execute, and requires only four ingredients, excluding water.

The first step into making homemade donburi sauce is to boil around two cups of water. Once the water has reached its boiling point, the next step is to add the soy sauce, mirin, and sake while reducing the heat at the same time. For anyone who is unfamiliar, mirin is a form of sake that is often used to cook. Unlike most cooking sake’s, it is on the sweeter side and is often used as an ingredient to make sweet Japanese sauces.

Once the three ingredients have been added to the boiling water, it is necessary to wait for five minutes first so that the flavors can mix well together. Once the five minutes is up, the last ingredient is the sugar. It is quite important to put the sugar only during the last few minutes of cooking since sugar burns faster than the other ingredients involved. Mixing the sugar along with the first three ingredients would almost guarantee a sauce with a burnt taste.

After a few minutes, the sauce is done. There are several guides on the internet on how to best proportion the ingredients to achieve the sweet and savory taste. However, these are only guides since the mixture can be customized based on preference. More soy sauce would guarantee a richer taste, while more sugar would definitely result in a sweeter sauce.

Maishoku: Donburi Delivery Service in Japan

Traveling to Japan, basically, means traveling to the land of delicious food. The amount of food to try in insane. One must try visiting a local ramen bar for lunch, as these ramen bars paved the way for global giants like Ippudo and Ramen Nagi. During the night, one can enjoy the company of friends, family, or even colleagues at one of Japan’s many izakayas where one can order sushi, yakitori, and other local Japanese dishes while drinking sake. While touring in the daytime, one can buy street food from vendors to try exotic dishes such as fried squid or sea urchin.

Japan is undoubtedly a gastronomical mecca. In every corner, there is delicious food waiting to be eaten. However, there are times when touring around the towns and cities have gotten too exhausting that there is no more energy left to go out and eat. A common solution to this would be to buy take out food from the convenience store and eat it from the comfort of his or her hotel room.

Tourists who are staying in Tokyo are lucky because, with the recent technological advancements, they can order Japanese food straight to their hotel room without any problems. With the rise of online-based services, it was very timely for Maishoku’s to launch.

Maishoku is similar in idea to that of fast food delivery. Offering delivery services are not a common practice in Japan, unlike western fast food chains. Maishoku offers a great solution to that problem, by allowing anyone who has access to their website or mobile application to order from any of the nearby restaurants in his or her area. This allows the user to order sushi, donburi, noodles or anything that tickles his fancy. It also helps that the website is in English, making it user-friendly for guests who are in no way fluent in Japanese.