Hugely popular from its creation in the late Edo period, to modern times, Unadon- or Unagi Donburi to give the dish its full name- is one of the most common ways to eat freshwater eels in Japan. An oversized lacquer bowl, a mound of perfectly cooked, pearly white rice, and a fillet of eel, glazed to a rich mahogany colour with a mixture of soy and mirin, caramelised and slightly charred. The first time we ate unadon was early one Summer’s morning in Shibuya. After a dawn visit to the Meiji shrine complex we needed a hearty breakfast to boost our flagging energy, knowing little Japanese at the time we stumbled across a restaurant that was open where we recognised the word for ‘eel’ and decided to give it a go. It proved to be the ultimate reviver, the sugary, salty kabayaki glaze along with the big hit of protein and fat got us back on our feet in no time and it has gone on to become one of our favourite breakfast dishes.
Despite being traditionally eaten all over the UK, getting fresh eels nowadays is a little difficult, so over the years we’ve experimented with cooking different native fishes in the kabayaki style. The closest match we’ve been able to find is the locally abundant garfish, long and silvery with a fine flesh and just a little fat, it even looks pretty similar to an eel and should be easy to get hold of in most fishmongers. Whilst at our fishmongers we also saw some beautiful samphire for sale and knew that this vibrant, salty, shoreline succulent would make the perfect gomaae accompaniment to the unadon; while these are both classic breakfast dishes, they’re delicious for any meal of the day.
Samphire Gomaae ingredients.
- 100g samphire
- 20g white sesame seeds
- 1 tablespoon dashi stock
- 1 teaspoon soy sauce
- 2 teaspoons caster sugar
- First, get a pan of water on to boil. Trim the ends of the samphire sprigs, then blanch in the boiling water for one to two minutes. Drain the samphire and rinse under a cold tap to cool the stems and stop the cooking process. Place the samphire in a large bowl, and set aside.
- Toast the sesame seeds in a frying pan until lightly golden, then leave to cool slightly and blend the seeds in a food processor until they have been pulverised into a fine powder.
- Next, mix the dashi, soy sauce and sugar together and pour this over the bowl of blanched samphire. Stir well to coat with the dressing, then sprinkle the ground sesame seeds over and stir again to combine.
Gomaae sauce can be used to dress all sorts of other vegetables too, but you may have to play around with the amount of sugar you add, and probably add a pinch of salt too- we haven’t included any salt in our recipe here as samphire is naturally quite salty from growing next to the sea.
Unagi no Tare ingredients.
- 125ml soy sauce
- 125ml mirin
- 45ml sake
- 75g caster sugar
- Pour the mirin and sake into a small saucepan, then warm over a medium heat for a few minutes to boil off the harsh taste of the alcohol.
- Add the sugar and soy sauce, and stir until the sugar crystals have dissolved. Continue cooking until the liquid has thickened to a syrupy, brushable sauce- this should take around fifteen minutes- then turn off the heat and leave to cool.
- 600g freshwater eel, garfish or mackerel fillets
- 1 tablespoon sake
- 1 quantity Unagi no Tare (from the above recipe)
- 2 cups Japanese rice
- sanshō to serve
- Line a steamer basket with greaseproof paper and arrange the fish fillets inside. Brush sake over the surface of the fish, then steam over a high heat for ten to fifteen minutes (depending on the size of your fillets).
- Start to heat up your grill to a medium-high temperature, then get your rice on to cook (we have instructions on cooking Japanese rice here).
- When the rice is nearly cooked, lay out your steamed fish on a grill pan lined with oiled kitchen foil, and brush the thick Unagi no Tare over. Cook under the hot grill for around a minute, then brush on some more sauce and put back under the grill for another minute or so, until the tare starts to bubble and caramelise on the fish.
- Remove the fish from the grill pan, then chop the fillets into bite sized pieces. Divide your cooked rice into four serving bowls and arrange the glazed fish on top. Sprinkle the fish with some ground sanshō, and then serve along with the samphire gomaae.
Serves 4 people.