Learn how to make a plant based version of one of Japans most loved dishes, Unadon (grilled ‘eel’ rice bowl) with eggplants! Seasoned and caramelized with homemade unagi sauce, this vegan eggplant unagi don (eggplant kabayaki) tastes and looks just like to the real deal!
Unagi Don / Unadon (Grilled Eel Rice Bowl) was a dish I looked forward to eating every year when visiting Japan. I think I’d go as far as to say it was one of my favourite Japanese food. I always get a little weary when I make a grand statement like that because I might have said that about another recipe I’ve previously shared but hey, enthusiasm right?! It was still definitely was a top favourite! 😂
What is Unadon?
For those unfamiliar, unadon (short for unagi (eel) donburi (rice bowl)) is a classic Japanese dish consisting of grilled eel fillets, glazed with a sweet tare (soy-based sauce) over a bed of steamed rice. In Japan, it is also known as Unagi no Kabayaki (蒲焼), which refers to a style of preparation: split, butterflied, glazed with a sweet soy tare sauce and then grilled over charcoal to caramelized perfection.
As eels are more endangered than ever before, they’ve gotten extremely expensive and are becoming more difficult to purchase regularly. So over the years, fish cakes, tofu and eggplant kabayaki has become increasingly popular due to the shortages of eels and to protect them from extinction. The tofu and eggplant version is also popular in Shojin ryori (Japanese buddhist cuisine) served as vegan unagi don. Today, I’ll be sharing the eggplant variation since we are heading into the summer season and the preparation is by far the easiest. Eggplants already have that elongated look with a similar soft, fluffy and moist texture on the inside which is very similar to eel. Glazed with unagi sauce and then torched or grilled, the result is shockingly close to the real thing!
Homemade Unagi Sauce
The sweet soy-based tare sauce is made up of just 4 ingredients: sake, mirin, sugar and soy sauce. The golden ratio for kabayaki is 1:1:1:1, however feel free to adjust the ratios to your liking. If you prefer the sauce to be less sweet, scale back the sugar. I also added a little bit of kombu dashi powder for an extra boost of flavour.
How to Make Vegan Eggplant Unagi
Just like how the eel is split and butterlied, the same tehqniue is used for the eggplant. Here’s the run down:
- Cook the eggplant: Peel the skin with a peeler and then place in a microwave safe bowl. Microwave on high for 1 minute, flip and microwave for another minute. If you do not have a bowl or plate large enough to fit the eggplant, wrap it with cling wrap first. Alternatively, you can poke holes and then roast the eggplant at 350 F for 15 minutes and then peel away the outer skin.
- Split the eggplant: Gently run a knife down the middle without cutting all the way through and split it open. Then further split it like a butterfly. To make it look more eel-like, gently run a dull knife horizontally (refer to video or photos). Dust some potato starch on both sides– this helps crisp up the outside just a bit so it’s not just mushy
- Grill: Over medium to medium high heat, add enough oil to lightly coat the entire pan and then grill each side until you get desired amount of charring (about 2 minutes per side).
- Sauce: Scoot the eggplant to the side of the pan and then add in sake, dashi powder, mirin and sugar. Once the sugar looks mostly dissolved, add the soy sauce. It’s important to add the soy sauce at the very end to maintain it’s flavour and to prevent burning. Swirl the pan around to coat the bottom of the eggplant. Once the sauce looks thickened up, carefully flip the eggplant and cook on the other side for about 30-45 seconds– enough for the sauce to glaze the entire eggplant.
- Torch/grill: Torch the eggplant to achieve that delicious charred flavour similar to what you would get with a charcoal grill.
- Assemble: Add rice to a bowl and then rip some nori on top. Lay the kabayaki eggplant on top and then brush leftover sauce on top. If you like more flavour to the rice, feel free to drizzle the remaining sauce over the rice before the nori. The nori will stick onto the backside of the eggplant, giving it an additional textural element and sea-scented flavour.
How to Serve Eggplant Unagi
When serving it in a round rice bowl, the dish is referred to as Unadon (鰻丼). When served in a square or rectangular bento-like box, the dish is called Unaju (鰻重) because the boxes are called jubako (重箱). However, you don’t need a fancy donburi or jubako to enjoy unadon. While it does add to that fancy Japanese-style-like experience, this dish is just as delicious in any serving bowl.
Recipe Notes & Tips
- Japanese eggplants are the best for this recipe because they’re softer, milder and have much less seeds. However, they can be difficult to find in North America so the next best option are Chinese eggplants (which is what I used).
- If you don’t mind the skin of the eggplant, no need to peel!
- When making the sauce, please add the ingredients in the order listed. Sake, mirin, dashi granules and sugar is always added first. Soy sauce is added at the very end to maintain its flavour and because its easily burnt.
- You can make this one day ahead of time or pack it for lunch. It’s great for bentos and can be served at room temperature.
More Vegan Seafood Recipes to Try
- Vegan Poke Bowl with Crispy Tofu
- Vegan Kaki Fry (Japanese Fried Oysters)
- Vegan Teriyaki Salmon – coming soon!
- Vegetarian Oyster Sauce – coming soon!
- Spicy Vegan Stir Fried Chili Shrimp (Ebi Chili) – coming soon!
- Spicy Korean Stir Fried Squid – coming soon!
- Vegan Dashi – coming soon!
If you recreate this Vegan Unagi Don recipe let me know how you liked it by leaving a comment and rating below or by tagging me on Instagram @Okonomikitchen, I love seeing all of your tasty recreations!
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Learn how to make a plant based version of one of Japans most loved dishes, Unadon (grilled ‘eel’ rice bowl) with eggplants! Seasoned and caramelized with homemade unagi sauce, this vegan unagi don (eggplant unagi kabayaki) tastes and looks just like to the real deal!
Eggplant Unagi ‘Eel’
- 3 Japanese eggplants OR 2 Chinese eggplant
- potato starch, for dusting
Kabayaki Sauce (1:1:1:1 ratio)
- 3 tbsp (45 mL) sake
- 3 tbsp 45 mL) mirin
- 1/2 tsp (2.5 g) kombu dashi powder, optional
- 3 tbsp (36 g) cane sugar
- 3 tbsp 45 mL) Japanese soy sauce
- PREPARE EGGPLANT: Cut off the top of the eggplant. Keep the skin on or peel and remove the outer skin. If keeping the skin on, be sure to poke holes into it so it does not explode when cooking.
- TO STEAM: Place eggplants into a steamer and let it steam for 4-5 minutes (rotate it at 2.5 minutes).
- TO MICROWAVE: Place in a microwave safe dish with a lid and microwave at 600 W for 1 1/2 minutes. Turn the eggplant to the other side and microwave for another 1.5 minutes. If you do not have a microwave safe dish with a lid large enough to fold the eggplant, wrap the eggplant with cling wrap and microwave with the same amount of time on a plate.
- TO ROAST: Bake eggplants at 350 F for 30 minutes, rotating half way.
- ‘BUTTERFLY’: Slice the eggplant vertically down the middle without slicing all the way through. Open the eggplant with your fingers and to open it up. Gently slice horizontally to make eel-like marks on both sides, ensuring not to cut too deep (this step is optional but makes it look more like eel).
- SAUCE OPTION: If you prefer a one-pan method, skip this step. Add sake, mirin, kombu dashi powder and cane sugar to a sauce pan over medium heat and whisk together. Once it comes to a boil, add soy sauce and then reduce heat to low. Allow it to simmer for 5 minutes or until thickened up. Making the sauce on the side can help with over-cooking the eggplant.
- PAN FRY EGGPLANT: Lightly dust with potato starch. Over medium heat, add 2 tbsp of cooking oil and place the eggplant flat on the frying pan. Cook each side for 2-3 minutes or until you get some nice charring.
- ONE PAN METHOD (skip if sauce is made on the side): Add sake, mirin and dashi stock powder. Swirl the the pan and then add the sugar and soy sauce. Soy sauce is always added at the end to prevent loss of flavour and burning. Swirl the pan once more and let it cook and simmer for 30-45 seconds. Flip the eggplant and swirl the pan once more and cook until sauce is mostly absorbed and reduced. Turn off the heat and then spoon the sauce over the eggplant.
- PREPARED SAUCE METHOD: Brush the unagi sauce on one side and then flip and coat the other side. Repeat until you get enough glaze on the eggplant (I do it about 2-3 times).
- TORCH OR BROIL: Torch the eggplant. If you do not have a torch, broil for 2-3 minutes or until ‘smoky’. Sprinkle with Japanese pepper and sesame seeds if desired.
- ASSEMBLE: Layer nori on the bottom and then one layer of unagi. Then add a portion (about 1 1/2 cups cooked) of rice to a donburi or bowl. Drizzle remaining sauce over the rice and then add a generous layer of seaweed. Place the eggplant directly over the seaweed (the seaweed will stick to the eggplant giving it flavour and almost a ‘skin’ like look and texture). Serve and enjoy!
- Category: entree
- Method: stove top
- Cuisine: vegan, gluten free, japanese
- Serving Size: 1 serving
- Calories: 576
- Sugar: 25g
- Sodium: 897mg
- Fat: 14.6g
- Saturated Fat: 2.1g
- Unsaturated Fat: 11.8g
- Trans Fat: 0
- Carbohydrates: 96.4g
- Fiber: 6.9g
- Protein: 9.4g
- Cholesterol: 0
Keywords: unagi don, japanese eel, vegan unagi don, eggplant kabayaki, eggplant unagi
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