Donburi: Phenomenal Japanese Fast Food

Rice in a bowl with stuff on top.

“What is donburi” is something I’m asked quite often. It’s a simple dish. Donburi means bowl. Yep. That’s it. You’ll often find it abbreviated as simply don. Also, the varieties of donburi end in -don.

Essentially donburi is a rice dish with stuff on top. The varieties of donburi are named after what’s on top of the steamed white rice.

Look here for our recommendations on the best donburi restaurants in Tokyo.

Donburi has a long and storied history in Japanese culture. Starting way back in the Muromachi period (~1336 to 1573).

The rise in popularity recently is due to a very simple reason: convenience.

In today’s busy lifestyle, a donburi meal is quick and easy to eat, and very affordable.

Don = 丼

When adventuring around Japan keep your eyes peeled for this kanji: 丼. If you see this and it looks like a restaurant, it’s probably a donburi shop. And they’ll have items such as: 

  • gyu-don
  • buta-don
  • katsu-don
  • oyako-don
  • ten-don
  • ikura-don
  • una-don

We’ll dig more into each of these below.

Donburi should not to be confused with the similar, but different, dish: ojuu. Ojuu is served in a square, lacquer dish rather than the round earthenware bowl of donburi. It’s a bit more ceremonial than donburi.

Literally, anything cooked and put on top of a bowl of rice can be called donburi, but there are some you’ll commonly find at restaurants in Japan.

Gyudon 牛丼

This one is first because it is the most common donburi you’ll find.

Gyudon is beef bowl. Gyu means beef and don, as you learned above, is bowl.

The beef is thinly sliced and pan-grilled with a sweet mirin sauce and onions.

You can find a gyudon restaurant all over the place. Famous gyudon chain restaurants include Yoshinoya, Matsuya, and Sukiya. It’s essentially Japanese fast food.

They’re often open 24 hours too and make great drunk food after a night of partying.

One other thing, the big chain restaurants are all competing with each other to come up with unique toppings for their gyudon — expect to find all sorts of crazy additions to the standard beef bowl.

Check out this awesome video by John at Only in Japan Go as he hunts down a midnight snack at Matsuya.

Butadon 豚丼

I wanted to discuss this one next since the first one was beef.

Butadon is pork bowl. Buta meaning pork (or pig). Thinly sliced pork that is grilled and put over the rice, usually with some sliced green onion.

Most of the gyudon chains will also have butadon as an option. Plus there are some butadon specific shops with restaurants in the food court areas of malls.

There usually is not the same variety of butadon as with gyudon, however, there are usually around six options at these butadon restaurants.

Here’s a fun video where Yuka Kinoshita eats a giant buta-donburi. This is definitely not a normal size, and she is a food challenger.

Sorry, the video is in Japanese, but I don’t think you’ll have any problems understanding what is going on.

Katsudon カツ丼

Katsudon is a fried pork cutlet on top of a bowl of rice.

There’s a little more to it than that though. The tonkatsu (fried pork cutlet) is also simmered in a dashi and soy sauce broth with onions and eggs before being placed on top of the rice.

It’s a sweet, salty, fried bowl of goodness.

But there is almost no way to explain this in words. Here’s a fantastic video to whet your appetite for katsudon.

Oyakodon 親子丼

Oyakodon is minced chicken and egg over rice. A sort of simmered scrambled egg with chicken in it.

Here’s something interesting. Oya is short for adult. Ko is short kodomo, which means child. Oyakodon is adult and child on rice: chicken and egg.

Here is a fantastic video for oyakodon.

Tendon 天丼

Not to be confused with tendon, as in the tendon in your leg or something. This is ten-don (ten-doe-n).

Tendon is tempura over rice. Yes, fried tempura put on top of rice and usually drizzled with a sauce to add flavor that seeps into the rice.

While there are some tendon specific restaurants, they are few and far between.

Instead, you’ll find tendon at the typical kaiseki (Japanese food restaurant) or a tempura shop.

Which is amazing because they often have a massive variety of other foods you can try along with tendon.

Some train stations and large malls have tempura restaurants serving tendon. Like in this video:

Ikuradon いくら丼

Ikura-don, or sometimes salmon ikura-don, is salmon eggs on rice. This is a huge favorite among the Japanese, especially when some restaurants really stack the eggs on top.

If you enjoy salmon eggs, you’ll love this dish. Some shops will even make it fun to enjoy. Check this out:

Unadon 鰻丼

Una-don, short for Unagi-don, is grilled conger eel on rice. When grilled the eel is dipped in a sweet sauce, giving is a smokey sweet flavor that mixes very well with the steamed rice.

This particular donburi is often seasonal — you’ll find it more broadly available in the summer months.

What is donburi sauce?

You’ll find the sauce used between each type of donburi is different, especially tendon — where they drizzle a sauce over the tempura.

The baseline sauce you’ll find consists of dashi, mirin, soy sauce, and sugar. A simple recipe something like this:

  • 2 tbsps. Sugar
  • 1/4 cup soy sauce
  • 1/4 cup mirin
  • 1 cup dashi

Just mix everything and bring it to a boil, reduce to medium heat, and simmer until the sugar is fully dissolved. Store in the fridge– it should keep for a week or so.

What is the donburi bowl?

I know this sounds like a weird question to answer. But there is something to say about it.

The donburi bowl is similar to an ochawan, the standard Japanese rice bowl used in most meals. However, it is larger. Often more than double the size.

These bowls can range from typical ceramic to intricately hand-crafted masterpieces.

Some of these bowls are extremely impressive works of art.  In fact, there are shops selling donburi bowls for hundreds of dollars each.

What does donburi look like?

While it depends on what type of donburi you order, all are rice in a large-ish bowl with the main ingredients added on top — usually simmered in a sauce that will seep down into the rice for flavor.

Some shops will put a layer of nori (seaweed) in between the rice and topping to change the flavor profile a bit.

What does donburi mean in Japanese?

Donburi means bowl, but in the context of food, it means a rice bowl dish.

What rice for donburi?

The rice used in donburi is the standard Japanese rice used throughout most meals in Japan. It is not unique like you find in sushi shops.

Of course, the quality of this rice will vary from shop to shop. Some so drastically you might think it is a different kind of rice.

One more thing to note, the rice is usually cooked a little hard. This is called al-dente. It’s prepared this way to allow the rice to keep its form even after soaking in the sauces from the toppings.

Where to eat donburi?

You’ll find donburi in a couple of main places.

First at very specific restaurants that focus almost exclusively on donburi. The most common you’ll see are gyudon, katsudon, and butadon type places.

Some chains will have all three types on the menu.

The other types tend to be found in kaiseki restaurants (Japanese food restaurants). They’re a bit more upscale than the other places and feature more traditional Japanese foods.

But you’ll find ikuradon (salmon eggs over rice) and tendon (tempura on rice) at these types of restaurants.

This is not to say there are no restaurants dedicated to other specific types of donburi, there are. They are much less common, rare even. Very hard to find and often require reservations well in advance.

How to eat donburi?

Some types of donburi, such as tendon, are easy to eat with hashi (chopsticks). However, I find it easiest to eat with a spoon most of the time.

The sauce from the toppings seeps into the rice below, making it less sticky and harder to eat with chopsticks.

I often use both. The chopsticks for the topping and then switch to the spoon for the rice.

How to say donburi?

Donburi is quite easy to say, it’s simply “doe-n-boo-lee.”

Click here to listen to a native pronunciation of donburi.

How to write donburi in Japanese?

Just the word donburi is this kanji: 丼. But you’ll add more characters in front depending on the type of donburi you’re looking for.

Here is this kanji on Jisho where you can learn more.

Can you eat donburi when pregnant?

Of course! But that comes with a caveat. You need to be aware of your own food issues.

Donburi is a rice dish that will have toppings/sauces based on what you order. If you steer clear of the choices you cannot eat, you’ll be just fine.

Most donburi are cooked dishes. Some, like ikuradon (salmon eggs on rice), are similar to sushi — raw.

But the majority of donburi dishes, especially the most popular ones, should be fine for the average woman during pregnancy.

Can you eat donburi cold?

If you mean chilled after it was cooked, but maybe you didn’t want to reheat it thoroughly, then yes.

You can eat it cold.

But it is much better when reheated well.

Is donburi healthy?

Well, that’s a toss-up. On one hand, many donburi dishes will have amazingly fresh, healthy ingredients on top.

But it is still a bowl of rice. A high carb source.

New science is showing low-carb diets are healthier.

But the Japanese are some of the longest living people on the planet and rice is a staple in almost every meal they consume.

Is donburi gluten-free?

Probably not.

You can ask a shop if they offer a gluten-free choice on their menu, but nearly every type of donburi will use soy sauce as either an ingredient or drizzled on top.