What is Donburi? Wonderful Japanese Comfort Food

What is Donburi?

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11:44pm… Saturday, 22 December 2018…

It’s been a long night of Pokemon Go raids and battles. The crisp, cold night has seeped into my bones.

It’s cold outside. It’s late. I’m freezing and almost everything is closed.

Except for the fantastic donburi shops (and convenience stores).

I duck into a popular donburi chain and order a long time favorite: katsudon.

The meal arrives within minutes, which is crazy because this is not just a premade burger and fries. It seems like it should take longer to make. It’s as if they knew I was coming and read my mind.

Plus it came with a mini bowl of hot udon noodles on the side and all-you-can-drink hot green tea too!

Perfect.

What is Donburi?

It’s so simple you’ll laugh.

Ready?

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 rice.

Don = 丼

When adventuring around Japan keep your eyes peeled for this kanji: 丼. If you see this and the place looks like a restaurant, you know it’s a donburi shop.

Let’s go over some of the most popular types of 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 the 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

In a previous article, I discuss the difference between tonkotsu and tonkatsu. Tonkatsu is a fried pork cutlet.

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

There’s a little more to it than that though. The fried pork cutlet is also simmered with onions and egg before being placed on top of the rice.

It’s 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 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:

Donburi Questions and Answers

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 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 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 seep 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.

Hand-Picked Articles About Donburi

Using my 22+ years of experience in Tokyo, and during my research for this article, I came across a few website articles I think are worth your time to read to learn more about donburi, and maybe even discovered new places to check out.

A simple one-dish meal topped with all of your favorite Japanese foods, donburi rice bowls are the perfect choice for a quick and delicious meal in Japan.

Named for the large bowl that it’s served in called a “don”, a donburi combines a bowl of steamed rice, meat, vegetables, sauce, and usually a side of pickles and miso soup, for an all-in-one meal that’s both convenient and filling.

Continue on GuruNavi

The Top 10 Donburi Restaurants in Tokyo

Donburi culture originated in Edo culture, when the busy townspeople of Edo needed something fast and easy to eat. It is said that the first donburi was ‘Ten-don’ (tempura donburi) created by the restaurant Sansada in Asakusa in 1837.

Similarly, ‘eel donburi’, which is enjoyed by people all year long, appeared sometime in the 19th century.

Continue on Japan Hoppers

Enjoying “donburi” in Tokyo: a dish with a 300-year history

On the surface, it’s a simple dish, but the huge range of different toppings and seasonings makes for endless possible variations.

Tokyo, as the capital of Japan, has restaurants serving donburi from all over the country, and Tokyo Metropolitan Government places a strong emphasis on food hygiene.

Continue on Japan Monthly Web Magazine