The donburi (丼) has long become a staple of Japanese restaurants and households. On the surface, the don is a simple dish. It oftens consists of meat, fish, vegetables, and other ingredients simmered in a sauce, which is then served on a bed of sushi rice for the customer to enjoy. However, the history of this dish goes back almost 300 years, even before the Meiji period. In truth, the donburi aspect of Japanese food has evolved to become so many different variations that it is almost impossible to categorize all different types of donburi into a single article. Instead, what we have done today is to provide a comprehensive guide of some of the more common dons in Singapore and in Japan.
Easily the most popular of the donburi, the gyudon consists of thinly-sliced beef and onions, which has been simmered in a slightly sweet sauce with mirin. In some Japanese fast food chains, you can also opt for a raw or poached egg on top. It is also commonly eaten with pickled ginger and ground pepper.
The origins of the gyudon begin in the Meji era, where the practice of eating beef was adopted from Western culture. There was a sharp drop in beef consumerism due to the “Mad Cow Disease” scare in America in the 2003, but the industry has since picked up and gyudon is as popular as ever. Due to its accessibility and convenience, it is no wonder it has become a hot favourite among locals and foreigners alike. In japan itself, famous chain restaurants include Yoshinoya, Matsuya and Sukiya.
When the ban on American beef import was in place, fast food chains such as Yoshinoya turned to pork alternatives for donburi to keep their business open and replace the missing options. The pork equivalent of the gyudon, the buta is grilled instead of simmered. Nevertheless, butadon has the same mildly sweet taste as the gyudon.
Next is another quintessential variation — the katsudon. This dish is rice topped with deep fried pork cutlet, which has been simmered in broth with onions and eggs. The broth is unique, and consists of sweet dashi and soy sauce. A good katsudon has a cutlet that is still crisp, even after being cooked in the broth.
Fun fact: In Japan, it is a ritual for students to eat a katsudon the night before their exams as the word “katsu” means to win!
If you are a deep love for poultry, then oyakodon is definitely for you. This dish consists of simmered chicken and beaten eggs, often garnished with scallions. If you’re up for some spice, you can opt for additional shichimi pepper spices which add an extra kick to the taste.
Fun fact — oyako literally means “parent and child”. Make of that what you will.
Short for “tempura donburi”, this is a good option for vegetarians looking for the same satisfaction as meat lovers. Due to the airy texture and nature of the method, no meats are used in tempura — instead, only seafood and vegetables are used. As such, there are many variations to ten don. Most commonly, prawns (ebi), squid (ika) and vegetables (yasai) are used. Usually, the toppings are then drizzled with a sauce which seeps into the rice to add flavour. For a good ten don, look out for light and crispy textures and appearances.
Kaisendon is a don that consists of generous portions of thinly-sliced sashimi on rice. It is a specialty dish of Hokkaido, where top-quality seasonal seafood is available. For example, in summer, snow crabs are the seasonal seafood which are used in kaisendon. The origin of kaisendon is unknown, though it is thought to have first originated in Hokkaido and the Tohoku area by fishermen.
There are many variations of the kaisendon. Some only consist of one topping such as ikura and uni. Others include a medley of seafood on top — some common ingredients include fresh uni, tender crab meat, scallops, as well as other fish such as sea bream. The don often comes with a fresh dollop of wasabi on the side, and it is best to enjoy the fish and rice with some soy sauce and wasabi.
A close cousin of the kaisendon is the chirashi don. Chirashi consists of almost the same ingredients as the kaisendon, just presented differently. For example, the rice might be seasoned with nori (seaweed) and shredded egg omelette. In addition, instead of the sashimi being thinly-sliced, it is cubed in bite-sized portions.
Chirashi also has an interesting history. The word “chi-ra-su” literally means scatter, as in to scatter fish bits. After cutting away the “proper” pieces of fish for sashimi and nigiri, a substantial portion of the fish is left. Hence, the origins of chirashi stem from wanting to find a way to use all the leftover fish from sashimi and nigiri — therefore the “scattering” of the leftover fish into a rice bowl.