Vegan Unadon (Eggplant Rice Bowl)October 24, 2010
You wouldn’t know it from the Japanese restaurants you find in North America, but one of the most popular and ubiquitous dishes in Japan is 丼ぶり: donburi, or “rice bowl”. In fact, I would go so far as to say that donburi is like the Japanese equivalent of the American hamburger. It’s cheap, filling, not particularly gourmand, and can be found at most any cafeteria or fast food joint you might wander into. In addition, it admits of many variations, since basically all it is is some meat served on top of rice. But most importantly, it’s good, and any young North American who’s spent some time in Japan will tell you likewise.
Unfortunately, donburi is rarely served up vegetarian, much less vegan. Its typical variants are katsudon (“fried pork cutlet over rice”), gyuudon (“marinated beef over rice”), and the so-illustratively-named-it’s-hard-to-believe-people-still-want-to-eat-it oyakodon (literally, “parent and child rice bowl”; in fact, “chicken and egg over rice”). The only vegetarian donburi you’ll normally find is the simple tamagodon (“scrambled egg over rice”), which isn’t so much a separate variant as it is an additional menu option made available for those who are only willing to fork over ¥400 instead of ¥500. Long story short: I’m pretty certain that I haven’t had donburi since I was last in Japan, over three years ago now (which was also the last time I ate meat). And reflection on that fact led me to think recently: Well why not?!
So my mind got to working on how I could craft a tasty vegan donburi. My thoughts immediately focused on veganizing unadon, or “grilled eel rice bowl”. Though never my favorite type of donburi (eel is an acquired taste), I knew that I could probably make a fairly convincing eel substitute out of roasted eggplant. And with that idea in place, I got working away!
Overall, this was a fairly easy recipe to pull off, although I would still describe it as a work-in-progress. Fortunately, the “eel” eggplant turned out great on my first try! All I did was slice up an eggplant into eel-sized chunks, lay them out on a baking sheet, drizzle them with some olive oil, sprinkle on some salt and pepper, and then roast them at 425F for about 25 minutes. After they came out of the oven, I whipped up a simple kabayaki sauce (the formula for which I found here) out of soy sauce, mirin, and sugar. Once that was ready, I poured it over the eggplant slices and let them marinate overnight. Here’s the finished product:
Now, I can’t tell you how eel-y these came out tasting (I really don’t have that good a memory of eel), but I can tell you that they were absolutely delicious in their own right. So, super happy with how these turned out, I set off to make my rice complement.
This is where my culinary skills of improvisation got a little hazier. I cooked up a batch of basmati rice without issue, but I was completely in the dark as to how I should flavor the rice afterwards. The thing with donburi is that the topping doesn’t carry all the flavor; the rice does a lot of the work too. However, not knowing how it does that, I just added some Japanese ingredients I had on hand and hoped it would work. It didn’t, but it wasn’t all that bad either.
The things I will definitely use again next time were the kelp and dulse flakes; they added a great saltiness to the rice. What I’d like to try out next time is making some sort of dashi to mix with the rice and see how that goes. Also, the basmati rice, though perfectly good in itself, didn’t really gel with the Japanese-ness of the rest of the dish, and so I might give in and use Japanese white rice next time (basmati was all I had on hand today). But all in all, this rice worked well enough. That is, well enough for me to still eagerly want to eat it all up. And after placing my heated-up eggplant slices on top and adding some shredded nori sheets, my vegan unadon was ready to go! Here’s the close up:
As I said, the eggplant really was divine, and the rice only so-so, but given my performance today I think this dish has really good potential of becoming something super great in the future with just a little more work. And once that’s work finished, I will be sure to share my final recipe with you all here!
Until we eat again,