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.

Eggplant Kabayaki

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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
  3. 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).
  4. 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.
  5. Torch/grill: Torch the eggplant to achieve that delicious charred flavour similar to what you would get with a charcoal grill.
  6. 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

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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Vegan Unagi Don (Eggplant Unagi Kabayaki) うなぎ丼


  • Author: Lisa Kitahara
  • Total Time: 20 minutes
  • Yield: 2 servings 1x

Description

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!


Ingredients

Scale

Eggplant Unagi ‘Eel’

  • 3 Japanese eggplants OR 2 Chinese eggplant
  • potato starch, for dusting

Kabayaki Sauce (1:1:1:1 ratio)

To serve


Instructions

  1. 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. 
  2. TO STEAM: Place eggplants into a steamer and let it steam for 4-5 minutes (rotate it at 2.5 minutes). 
  3. 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. 
  4. TO ROAST: Bake eggplants at 350 F for 30 minutes, rotating half way. 
  5. ‘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). 
  6. 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. 
  7. 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.
  8. 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.
  9. 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). 
  10. 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.
  11. 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!
     

Notes

  • Sake/mirin substitute: Replace sake with water and mirin with alcohol free mirin. 
  • Helpful Equipment: blow torch, turner, non-stick frying pan, donburi bento box
  • Nutritional Information Disclaimer: Nutrition information is a rough estimate calculated on an online tool (Cronometer). 
  • Prep Time: 10 minutes
  • Cook Time: 10 minutes
  • Category: entree
  • Method: stove top
  • Cuisine: vegan, gluten free, japanese

Nutrition

  • 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

SAVE IT FOR LATER! ↓

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Konnichiwa

About Lisa

I'm Lisa, a home cook, recipe developer and founder of Okonomi Kitchen. Here, you'll find a mix of classic and modernized Japanese recipes, and creative, plant-forward meal inspiration using seasonal ingredients. I hope to share more about Japanese cuisine and culture through food and recipes.


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257 Comments

  1. I’m a huge fan of non-vegan unagi, but I’m incorporating more plant-based and vegetarian food in my diet, and this looked delicious on Instagram, so I had to give it a try.

    It did not disappoint.

    I love that there were multiple cooking methods for what you have available. I decided to roast mine, skin on. It was still super tasty with the skin, but I think the texture would have been more spot on if I had taken it off. Something to consider for next time, because there WILL be a next time.

  2. I did not like the eggplant so much but when i try this recipe, i change my mind I really loved it and also my family. They love i make the recipe 🙌🏻💛

  3. I love this recipe! Living in Hawaii we have so much Japanese eggplant – this recipe is so fun and fulfilling! I will say peeling the eggplant is a pain in the ass though! But so worth it to get that slippery eel texture. Love this with broccoli and rice and miso.

  4. It was super easy and fast, yet very delicious! Didn’t expect my meat-eater boyfriend to like it 😀 Thank you so much!

  5. This recipe by @Okonomikitchen is amazing!!

    I was looking for a really nice eggplant recipe and obviously most things came up as your basic roasted veggies 😒😒😒 sooo didn’t want that!! After numerous Google searches and Instagram reels, this amazing recipe came to me!!

    I was super impressed!! Healthy, yummy and Japanese….what else to love??!! 😆😆😆

    The recipe is super easy to follow, minimal prep needed, speedy to make and it tastes amazing!! I’ve made this so many times and I love it every single time!!

    Highly highly recommend 💕💕💕

  6. Fantastic recipe. I’ve tried this multiple times at this point and I’ve gotten better at it every time. I used corn starch instead of potato because that’s what I had, and soju instead of sake, bcuz that’s what I had. Excellent regardless.

  7. i love unagi but eggplant? not so much. this recipe was circulating around my tiktok for the longest time so i knew i had to try it! my parents used to prepare eggplant in a way that made me hate it so i chose to not include it in my diet but this recipe changed my mind 🙂 this recipe was so creative!! i love anything saucy, and this one made the eggplant taste so good paired with rice.

  8. I tried this recipe the other day and it came out so so delicious!

    I found it really easy too. I was surprised that it wa so easy as it looks like it should be complicated.

    Both me and my fiancé couldn’t get enough 🍽🍽😋😋

  9. This is my fav vegan recipe ever!!!😭😭
    I was that upset when I needed to be vegan because I gotta say goodbye to some of my favorite japanese foods but Lisa told me to not be sad about it through this recipe.
    Thaaaank you so much this recipe is one of my best founding in 2022 love love love please create more!!💛💛💛