A Beginner’s Guide to Donburi

By Liv, DMT Collaborator on 7th March 2022 (updated: 21st February 2022) in Blog

What is Donburi?

Donburi translates from Japanese as ‘rice bowl’. It is the catch-all name given to a whole host of dishes consisting of savoury toppings, served with sauce on top of a bowl full of steaming hot rice.

cartoon graphic of a bowl of rice with chopsticks.

Clker-Free-Vector-Images via Pixabay

There are many different varieties of donburi, ranging from the inexpensive and accessible to the luxury and elaborate. The dish’s versatility means there is a version for every taste, and the meal can be as simple or as complex as you prefer.

Perfect for when you are in a hurry, donburi is a favourite lunch among Japanese office workers. It can be eaten anywhere, prepared at home and packed, or purchased from the many outlets that serve it in Japan’s busy cities. It is a popular comfort and convenience food, as leftovers can be used to create homemade varieties.

With their has high nutritious potential, rice bowls can be a balanced meal with plenty of vegetables, or a less balanced treat, packed with meat and fried ingredients. 

In Japan, every household, home cook, restaurant and region has a unique way of preparing rice bowl dishes, which make them special.

While donburi is much more homely than the precision-crafted Japanese dishes you may be used to, like sushi and robata, it is still made with careful consideration for flavour balance. The ratio of rice, to toppings, to sauce is considered very important by expert donburi chefs to ensure the perfect taste experience.

The Donburi Bowl

In signature Japanese style, even the vessel donburi is served in is important.

The bowl is, typically, twice the size of an ochawan, the standard Japanese rice bowl, although it is a similar shape. 

These bowls can range from simple ceramic to intricately hand-crafted art pieces that sell for hundreds of dollars.

The Origins of Donburi

The word ‘donburi’ originally referred to a bowl or dish, rather than a type of meal. While the term is still often used to mean bowl, in the proper context, it describes the cuisine.

Many believe donburi originated in Japan’s Muromachi period (1336-1573), evolving from a dish called houhan. Houhan was served on a plate and consisted of a pile of rice topped with stewed dishes, fish, vegetables, sauces and soups. It became an everyday dish among the common people into the Edo period.

Did you know?

Before houhan was popularised, it was considered very rude to scoop food directly from a serving dish to your mouth in Japan.

Why is it called Donburi?

There are a few explanations for the name, but our favourite is that the rice dish is named after the front pocket of a shopkeeper’s apron. 

Long ago, to calculate bills and costs, traders would reach into an apron pocket (called a donburi) to take counting coins in and out. Nowadays, while this isn’t practised, the act of roughly calculating is still known as a donburi calculation.

Some say that dropping the rice and toppings into the bowl is reminiscent of this traditional rough maths method hence the dish was named after it.

Different Types of Donburi

As we’ve already mentioned, donburi comes in many varieties. While it would be impossible to name them all, here is a rough guide to the popular types you may come across.

Oyakodon

The topping for this bowl consists of minced chicken and egg in ​​tsuyu sauce. Some compare it to a kind of omelette. Its simple ingredients and rich flavours make it a weekly favourite of foreigners in Japan. 

Somewhat comically, the name roughly translates as ‘parent and child bowl’, in reference to the egg and chicken!

Oyakodon donburi, with minced egg and chicken and peas.

PublicDomainPictures via Pixabay

Gyudon

This beef rice bowl is considered such a classic that whole restaurant chains are dedicated to it in Japan and further afield. 

A basic gyudon is assembled from thinly-sliced, pan-grilled beef in sweet mirin sauce and onions. 

However, chain restaurants are constantly competing to develop new and unique varieties; many exciting versions can be found as a result. Gyudon is a fast food go-to in Japan, and outlets are often open 24 hours, making them the first port of call after a night out!

Katsudon

The star of this dish is a pork cutlet and fluffy scrambled egg. Before being served, the pork is simmered in a dashi and soy sauce with onions. The perfect combination of sweet and salty is said to be delightful.

Kaisendon

This raw seafood rice bowl is a little more of an acquired taste. Very popular with the Japanese, the chef often handpicks the seafood for freshness, which makes this bowl quite the delicacy. However, it is sometimes made to order according to the customer’s preference.

If you like sushi but are fussy about which fish you prefer, this could be the bowl for you!

raw fish donburi with tuna

ichimi via Pixabay

Tendon

What could be better than crispy tempura on its own? Well, how about a tempura rice bowl? 

This rice bowl is relatively traditional and consists of tempura battered and fried vegetables, meat or fish drizzled with a rich sauce that seeps into the rice.

Konohadon and Tofudon

These two dishes both use soy-based protein as their main event. While konohadon uses traditional tofu skin or yuba, tofudon uses stock simmered tofu, which may appear more familiar to a global audience.

And yes, you guessed it, both of these can be made vegan!

Unadon

One of the original types of donburi, unadon originated in the Edo period and is created from grilled eel, or unagi, glazed with a thick soy sauce, similar to teriyaki.

It has a unique sweet and smoky flavour and is often only served seasonally in the summer months.

Tamagodon

Ideal for vegetarians, tamagodon means ‘egg bowl’. 

It is essentially a meat-free version of oyakodon and includes spring onions and shiitake mushrooms for added flavour and plant-based nutrients.

Ikuradon

Sometimes called salmon ikuradon, this rice bowl is salmon roe served on rice. 

This dish is a huge favourite among the Japanese for its briny salty taste with a subtle hint of sweetness.

salmon fish roe donburi.

Should Wang via Pixabay

We told you there were a lot of varieties to choose from! Which one catches your eye?

Modern Evolutions of Donburi

Like many niche cultural dishes, donburi has been adopted and adapted across the globe, contributing to ever-changing food trends on social media. Even in Japan, new global fusion variations of donburi are arising all the time. One of the latest, Karagedon, sees the usual steaming hot rice topped with fried chicken!

Poke bowls and sushi bowls are also both considered modern evolutions of donburi, created as healthier options. 

Since rice bowls are easy to make gluten-free, halal or vegan, they are a favourite of food bloggers and Instagrammers. They also make ideal takeaway or delivery service offerings, as they can be served on the go.

Try Donburi at Intoku Reading!

You’ve tried our sushi, and you’ve tasted our robata; now you’re ready for some donburi! Keep an eye out for the release of our brand new menu, coming soon to Reading.

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