Vegan Unagi Don (Grilled Eggplant “Eel” Rice Bowl)

By Lisa Kitahara _ Okonomi Kitchen

Food Stories is a column in which Best of Vegan community members share recipes from their cultures and personal stories connected to those dishes. Today, Lisa Kitahara of Okonomi Kitchen shares her recipe for Vegan Unagi Don (Grilled Eggplant “Eel” Rice Bowl).

This recipe was featured in Lisa’s profile for the weekly BIPOC Portraits series by Val and Mani Latifi, where they interview vegan creators and shed light on the unique challenges BIPOCs face in making the decision to embrace veganism. Click here to see the full article.

Vegan Unagi Don (Grilled Eggplant "Eel" Rice Bowl)

Unagi Don / Unadon (Grilled Eel Rice Bowl) was a dish I looked forward to eating every year when visiting Japan. I think I’d go as far as to say it was one of my favorite Japanese food. I always get a little weary when I make a grand statement like that because I might have said that about another recipe I’ve previously shared but hey, enthusiasm right?! It was still definitely was a top favorite! 

Vegan Unagi Don (Grilled Eggplant "Eel" Rice Bowl)

For those unfamiliar, unadon (short for unagi, or eel) donburi (rice bowl) is a classic Japanese dish consisting of grilled eel fillets, glazed with a sweet tare (soy-based sauce) over a bed of steamed rice. In Japan, it is also known as Unagi no Kabayaki (蒲焼), which refers to a style of preparation: split, butterflied, glazed with a sweet soy tare sauce, and then grilled over charcoal to caramelized perfection.

Vegan Unagi Don (Grilled Eggplant "Eel" Rice Bowl)

As eels are more endangered than ever before, they’ve gotten extremely expensive and are becoming more difficult to purchase regularly. So over the years, fish cakes, tofu, and eggplant kabayaki has become increasingly popular due to the shortages of eels and to protect them from extinction. The tofu and eggplant version is also popular in Shojin ryori (Japanese Buddhist cuisine) served as vegan unagi don. Today, I’ll be sharing the eggplant variation since we are heading into the summer season and the preparation is by far the easiest. Eggplants already have that elongated look with a similar soft, fluffy, and moist texture on the inside which is very similar to eel. Glazed with unagi sauce and then torched or grilled, the result is shockingly close to the real thing!

Recipe shared with permission from Lisa Kitahara of Okonomi Kitchen.

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Vegan Unagi Don (Grilled Eggplant "Eel" Rice Bowl)

Vegan Unagi Don (Grilled Eggplant “Eel” Rice Bowl)


Ingredients

Scale

Eggplant Unagi ‘Eel’

  • 3 Japanese eggplants OR 2 Chinese eggplant
  • potato starch, for dusting

Kabayaki Sauce (1:1:1:1 ratio)

  • 3 tbsp sake (45ml)
  • 3 tbsp mirin (45ml)
  • 1/2 tsp kombu dashi powder, optional
  • 3 tbsp cane sugar (36g)
  • 3 tbsp Japanese soy sauce (45ml)

To serve

  • nori (seaweed)
  • 2 cups cooked Japanese short-grain rice (600g)
  • sesame seeds, optional

Instructions

  1. PREPARE EGGPLANT: Cut off the top of the eggplant. Keep the skin on or peel and remove the outer skin. If keeping the skin on, be sure to poke holes into it, so it does not explode when cooking. 
  2. TO STEAM: Place eggplants into a steamer and let it steam for 4-5 minutes (rotate it at 2.5 minutes). 
  3. TO MICROWAVE: Place in a microwave-safe dish with a lid and microwave at 600 W for 1.5 minutes. Turn the eggplant to the other side and microwave for another 1.5 minutes. If you do not have a microwave-safe dish with a lid large enough to fold the eggplant, wrap the eggplant with cling wrap and microwave with the same amount of time on a plate. 
  4. TO ROAST: Bake eggplants at 350ºF/180ºC for 30 minutes, rotating halfway. Slice the eggplant vertically down the middle without slicing all the way through. Open the eggplant with your fingers. Gently slice horizontally to make eel-like marks on both sides, ensuring not to cut too deep (this step is optional but makes it look more like eel). 
  5. SAUCE OPTION: If you prefer a one-pan method, skip this step. Add sake, mirin, kombu dashi powder, and cane sugar to a saucepan over medium heat and whisk together. Once it comes to a boil, add soy sauce and then reduce heat to low. Allow it to simmer for 5 minutes or until thickened up. Making the sauce on the side can help with over-cooking the eggplant. 
  6. PAN FRY EGGPLANT: Lightly dust with potato starch. Over medium heat, add 2 tbsp of cooking oil and place the eggplant flat on the frying pan. Cook each side for 2-3 minutes or until you get some nice charring.
  7. ONE-PAN METHOD (skip if sauce is made on the side): Add sake, mirin, and dashi stock powder. Swirl the pan and then add the sugar and soy sauce. Soy sauce is always added at the end to prevent loss of flavor and burning. Swirl the pan once more and let it cook and simmer for 30-45 seconds. Flip the eggplant and swirl the pan once more and cook until sauce is mostly absorbed and reduced. Turn off the heat and then spoon the sauce over the eggplant.
  8. PREPARED SAUCE METHOD: Brush the unagi sauce on one side and then flip and coat the other side. Repeat until you get enough glaze on the eggplant (I do it about 2-3 times). 
  9. TORCH OR BROIL: Torch the eggplant. If you do not have a torch, broil for 2-3 minutes or until ‘smoky’.   Sprinkle with Japanese pepper and sesame seeds if desired.
  10. ASSEMBLE: Layer nori on the bottom and then one layer of unagi. Then add a portion (about 1.5 cups cooked) of rice to a donburi or bowl. Drizzle remaining sauce over the rice and then add a generous layer of seaweed. Place the eggplant directly over the seaweed (the seaweed will stick to the eggplant giving it flavour and almost a ‘skin’ like look and texture). Serve and enjoy!

Notes

Sake/mirin substitute: Replace sake with water and mirin with alcohol-free mirin.

Helpful Equipment: blow torch, turner, non-stick frying pan, donburi bento box.

Find more of Lisa’s recipes on @okonomikitchen.

Text, recipe & photography by Lisa Kitahara of Okonomi Kitchen.

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Vegan Unagi Don (Japanese Eggplant Eel Rice Bowl)

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