Sweet caramelized homemade unagi sauce drizzled over perfectly grilled unagi and steamed rice, this Unadon (Eel Rice) will make any Japanese food enthusiasts mouth water.

A donburi bowl containing grilled eel fillet over steamed rice.

Unagi sushi is a mainstay item at most sushi restaurants, but have you tried unagi rice bowl before? This classic Japanese dish is called Unadon (鰻丼) or Unaju (鰻重), or you might have known it as eel rice.

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The Japanese have a special affection for Unadon because the satisfaction of eating perfectly grilled unagi over a bed of warm rice is incomparable. Oh, and the aroma of the sweet caramelized sauce…that alone is enough to make my mouth water.

A Japanese lacquer box containing grilled eel fillet over steamed rice.

What is Eel Rice (Unadon & Unaju)

Eel Rice is a beloved Japanese dish consists of steamed rice topped with grilled eels that are glazed with a sweetened soy-based sauce (called tare) and caramelized, preferably over a charcoal fire.

When grilled unagi is served in a big rice bowl called donburi, we call it Unadon (鰻丼), a short for unagi donburi. When the unagi is served in a fancy rectangle lacquered box with the lid on, we call it Unaju (鰻重) because these boxes are called jubako (重箱).

A Japanese lacquer box containing grilled eel fillet over steamed rice.

How Eels Are Cooked

This particular cooking method is known as Kabayaki (蒲焼), similar to Teriyaki. It’s a very common way to prepare eels and other fish in Japan.

This is how the unagi-specialized chefs prepare the eels. Live eels are split down the back (or belly), gutted and boned, butterflied, and cut into square fillets. Then the fillets are skewered, dipped in a sweet soy-based sauce, and broiled on a charcoal grill.

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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.

A donburi bowl containing grilled eel fillet over steamed rice.

Dining at Unagi Restaurant in Japan

When you go to unagi specialized restaurants in Japan, the menu typically offers both Unadon and Unaju and there are 3 ranks for the price whether you order Unadon or Unaju.

  • The premium grade is called Tokujo (特上) or Matsu (松, pine)
  • The superior grade is called Jo (上) or Take (竹, bamboo)
  • The average grade is called Nami (並) or Ume (梅, plum)

According to the unagi restaurants, the price is usually related to the weight (amount) of unagi and not necessarily the quality of unagi.

Tradition: Eat Unagi on Mid-Summer Day

Unagi (freshwater eel) is considered an expensive delicacy in Japan, and it’s not an everyday dish. I did a quick research and found out that 26.2% of people eat unagi “about once every 6 months”, followed by “once every 2 to 3 months” at 16.8%, “less than once a year” at 16.1%, and “once a year” at 15.8%.

So when do most people eat unagi? You will see big banners and carts of eel packages in the supermarkets right before the mid-summer day.

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 to beat the heat. In 2021, it falls on to July 28th.

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.

A donburi bowl containing grilled eel fillet over steamed rice.

How to Make Eel Rice at Home

Ingredients You’ll Need

  • Unagi (Eel) fillets
  • Unagi sauce – you can get a bottle of eel sauce but it’s SO easy to make it at home (I’ll show you!)
  • Steamed rice

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Japanese home cooks don’t buy a live eel to cook at home. They buy pre-grilled eel fillets and just reheat them before serving. Here in the US, you can purchase grilled eels that have been vacuum-sealed in Japanese/Asian grocery stores or this online shop.

Unagi (Eel) from Japan

My local Japanese supermarkets sell imported unagi from Japan (all from Kagoshima prefecture) and they usually cost between $30-40 each (compared to the frozen eels from other countries, which cost around $10 each). If you are able to find Japanese unagi in your local market, you are in for a real treat!

Overview: Cooking Step

  1. Prepare the homemade eel sauce (see below).
  2. Broil eel fillets and brush the eel sauce right before taking them out.
  3. Serve rice in a large rice bowl (donburi), brush with sauce, and serve eel fillets on top.

How To Make Homemade Eel Sauce (Unagi no Tare)

Today I will share how to prepare Unadon with my homemade eel sauce (unagi sauce). You can buy a bottle of unagi sauce at a Japanese/Asian market, but you can easily make it at home. All you need is soy sauce, mirin, sake, and sugar!

Homemade unagi sauce in a glass jar.

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 brush on my grilled rice balls to make Yaki Onigiri.

A Japanese blue and white plate containing Yaki Onigiri - Japanese Grilled Rice Balls).

What to Serve With Unadon

You can serve it with miso soup, some kind of pickles, and some small sides such as Spinach with Sesame Sauce or Kinpira Rekon.

It takes minimal effort to make delicious unadon, and it’s truly worth it to prepare this dish at home!

A donburi bowl containing grilled eel fillet over steamed rice.

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Update: The post was originally published on May 31, 2012. The recipe was updated in July 2012. The images and blog content have been updated in July 2021.

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