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Broiled eel (unagi) over rice, two ways

Unagi kamameshi, unagi donburi, una-don, una-jyu: It goes by many names, and remains one of my favorite Japanese dishes. Obachan’s articles on unagi donburi and unagi mabushi, became catalysts for figuring out how to make them on my own. So I came up with two recipes. One which emulates the claypot to obtain the crust, and another which ends up as a moister one-pot meal recipe. In both cases I do cheat —by using already cooked eel— something that’s easy to find in the frozen or refrigerated seafood section at Japanese groceries.

broiled eel over crisped riceBroiled eel over crisped rice, topped with nori and scallions. Okay, okay, the crispy part is on the unseen bottom of the pan.

(I don’t own a claypot (i.e., ceramic hotpot), and I’m too chicken to choose which of the many supposed “correct” ways to cook rice dishes in said container. Blame my confusion over the soak vs. not to soak and oven vs. stovetop camps of techniques. Blame my hesitation about direct flames on ceramic dishes and fear of a hot, food-filled container cracking and making a mess which would take a decade to clean away. As you could surmise, my web searches didn’t help much. So far. Advice welcomed. 😉

The crispy rice goodness seems like a Japanese version of the Persian tahdig. I couldn’t find a decent definition for tahdig online, though. The Oxford Encyclopedia of Food and Claudia Roden’s New Book of Middle Eastern Food helped. Tahdig, a.k.a. tah dig or tahdeeg, refers to the crusty, often golden-brown rice at the “bottom of the pan,” its literal translation. In Persian and other Middle Eastern cuisine, these rice crunchies are a delicacy. In general, Japanese rice cookery discourages rice crusting —with the exception of kamameshi dishes, AFAICT.

As a pathetic consideration towards health (unagi is very rich and fatty), I’ve been using 70% polished brown sushi rice: the taste and texture are like white rice, but with more fiber and nutriment. Nijiya Markets sell organic sushi rice at 0%, 30%, 50%, 70% and 100% polished levels, with 0% as complete bran brown rice and 100% as white rice. Choices!

Regarding garnishes: I highly recommend adding scallions, to lend a bit of sharpness to cut through the eel’s unctuous nature. Btw, your pre-cooked unagi might come with a sauce packet (a.k.a., taré), which you might find useful.

Crispier version

I figured out the following method from the advice of a waitress at one of my favorite Japanese restaurants, to whom I send my hearty thanks! The trick is to heat up already-cooked rice in an oiled pan; no claypot needed.

Ingredients

  • 1 tablespoon roasted sesame oil, plus a bit more for (re)broiling the eel.
  • (optional) 1 teaspoon garlic infused olive oil
  • 3 cups cooked sushi rice; leftover rice cooked in dashi or water works fine.
  • 8 to 9 ounces broiled eel (defrosted if previously frozen)

Seasoned dashi & garnishes

  • To make flavorful dashi, put the following in a small sauce pan and boil for 10 to 15 minutes:
    • 2 cups dashi
    • 4 tablespoons mirin
    • 2 tablespoons sake
    • 2 tablespoons soy sauce (I use a low sodium variety)
  • taré, or the sauce packet from packaged unagi
  • 3 or 4 scallions (green onions), both white and green parts sliced thinly
  • crumbled or snipped nori
  • shichimi togarashi (7-spice powder)
  • sansho (ground green Japanese pepper)
  • wasabi
  • mild pickles, such as cucumber, cabbage or daikon

Method

  1. Heat the sesame oil (and garlic oil, if using) in a non-stick (preferably) medium saucepan or skillet over medium high heat. Swirl to coat the bottom and as much of the pan’s sides (at least an inch high).
  2. When the oil is hot (it should be shimmering), gently but firmly press the rice into the pan. Make sure it covers the bottom of the pan. You want to maximize the surface area of rice grains exposed to the oil in the pan —without having to stir, since no stirring occurs in order to encourage crust formation— but you should not densely pack it in to form a solid mass.
  3. Heat until the rice is hot throughout, as well as browned on the bottom. This takes about 8 to 11 minutes.
  4. While the rice is heating, oil a broiling pan in which you’ll cook the eel, skin side up. Place the eel in the oven (with a broiler setting), and broil until the skin bubbles. This takes about 7 to 8 minutes. Remove from oven when done.
  5. Turn the heat off for the rice when it’s ready. Slice the eel and place on top of the rice; I serve it directly from the saucepan. Add garnishes (except for the seasoned dashi), stir everything together, and serve in bowls. Pour in some of the seasoned dashi at this point, if desired.

Softer one-pot version

As for the tahdig effect, this recipe is certainly not as crunchy as the above one. My rice cooker was built to avoid that, but having the sugars from mirin and soy sauce will cause some amount of browning. (I received giggles from a Japanese waitress when I described this.) Still, it’s a tasty one-pot meal, easily done in a pinch. So this recipe turns out to be an approximation, a compromise.

Feel free to add the unagi sauce packet contents to water, instead of the seasoned dashi. However, a sauce packet usually contains only a small amount (less than a tablespoon from what I’ve seen), so add a bit more dashi or water, about 1 or 2 more tablespoons, in order to avoid having too little liquid for cooking the rice.

Ingredients

  • 1 cup uncooked sushi rice
  • 8 to 9 ounces broiled eel (defrosted if previously frozen)
  • 1 plus up to 1/2 cups seasoned dashi
  • (optional) 1 packet of unagi sauce
  • Any of the above garnishes

Method

  1. Rinse the rice until the water is no longer cloudy (3 or 4 times). Place rice in rice cooker.
  2. Slice eel into 3 or 4 pieces and lay them on top of the rice, skin side down.
  3. In a measuring cup containing the dashi (or water), add the mirin and soy sauce (or sauce packet). Add additional dashi until the total volume is 1 1/2 cups. Stir then pour this over the eel and rice.
  4. Cook according to rice cooker’s instructions. However, within the last 10 to 15 minutes of cooking, add the scallions; no need to stir yet.
  5. When the cooker is finished, stir up the rice, eel and scallions. Serve in bowls and garnish as desired.

2 comments

  1. if you’re ever in the bay area, the unagi don from gochi in cupertino is really tasty. will have to try this homemade version while i wait to be reunited with it.

    Thursday, 10 September 2015 at 1:06 pm | Permalink
  2. sairuh wrote:

    Indeed, Gochi is the inspiration for the crispy recipe. I haven’t been there in while, so your comment reminds me to visit them again soon. 🙂

    Sunday, 13 September 2015 at 11:31 am | Permalink

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  1. Saga of the Itchy Eel | Lionelsewhere on Friday, 2 May 2014 at 4:25 pm

    […] we had some fried fish and something exotic which I picked out from the Asian grocery: Japanese broiled eel (unagi) in a sweet marinade and sealed in a vacuum pack. Simply heat the product and it’s […]

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