As part of my pre-trip research, I’m reading up on donburi — Japanese rice bowl dishes with a dizzying array of variations.
Yes, I’m going back to Japan in a very short while. This time with my family. Unlike last year’s trip, we’ll be taking it long and slow. We’ll skip Nara since no one in my family is interested in the deers but we’ll stay in Kyoto for several days and even longer in Osaka. I just hope it’s not too early for the autumn foliage that I so adore.
What’s in our list of to-do’s?
- There’s sightseeing, of course. Speedy has put the Arashiyama Bamboo Grove and Fushimi Inari Taisha on top of the must-see list.
- We’re going to enjoy as many kinds of ramen as we can (I read that Kyoto ramen is not quite the same as Osaka ramen).
- We’ll be spending considerable time exploring Nishiki and Kuromon Markets where we’ll feast on fresh seafood.
- We’re going to indulge in mochi.
- We definitely won’t miss exploring the world of donburi.
What is donburi?
Donburi is a rice bowl dish and comfort food for the Japanese.
Rice is scooped into an oversized bowl and topped with meat, seafood, vegetables or eggs or a combination of two or more of these ingredients. The result is a complete meal in a bowl.
If that description makes you think of a vast array of rice bowl dishes in other parts of Asia, that’s because rice bowl dishes are ubiquitous across Asia. Donburi is, put simply, merely the Japanese version of a tradition of serving an entire meal in a bowl.
“Rice topping” is the Filipino term for single-serve rice bowl dishes. A deep bowl is filled with rice and the ulam, or viand (meat, seafood or vegetables, or a combination of one or all of them), is heaped on top of the rice. “Rice topping” dishes, labeled as such, can be found in the menu of Filipino and Chinese restaurants in the Philippines.
Korea has its signature rice bowl dish, the bibimbap and its less spicy sibling, the heotjesabap.
How many kinds of donburi are there?
Oh, so many, and their names all end with “don” which means bowl. What comes before “don” depends on what topping is added to the rice.
Chicken and egg simmered in dashi, soy sauce and rice wine is oyakodon while deep-fried breaded pork similarly simmered with egg is katsudon.
If the topping is beef and onion with soy sauce sweetened with mirin, it’s called gyudon.
And then, there’s soboro don.
Rice topped with pork is butadon which is very similar to the Taiwanese lu rou fan.
Tempura over rice is tendon.
These are only the ones we are familiar with. Among the donburi we haven’t tried yet include ikuradon (with seasoned ikura or salmon roe), hokkaidon (with thinly sliced salmon), konohadon (with cured surimi) and kaisendon (with thinly-sliced sahimi).
Among all Japanese donburi dishes, chukadon seems to be the least well known. One explanation could be that this stir fried vegetables and meat rice bowl dish looks more Chinese than Japanese. And yet, the name—chukadon—is decidedly Japanese. What gives?
Chukadon is an inexpensive fast food dish sold in Chinese restaurants in Japan. If you know how such wanderers the Chinese are, even before written history, you’d know how they traveled and settled all around Asia, bringing with them the food of their regions. Many of the dishes they introduced to their new home were given local names to make them more acceptable.
What the Chinese name for the dish is, no one knows. There probably isn’t a singular Chinese name for it just as there is no singular recipe for cooking it. The only standard for calling a dish chukadon is that it is a rice bowl dish that consists of rice at the bottom and saucy stir fried vegetables on top. Meat, mushrooms, quail eggs and mushrooms may accompany the vegetables.
Sounds like chop suey, doesn’t it? Yes, it does. And if it’s any surprise, chop suey, like chukadon, is not even traditional Chinese. Although there are countless stir fried vegetable dishes in Chinese cuisine, the term “chop suey” was born in America. Even I didn’t know that until recently. And to think that the oldest Chinatown in the world world is in my country.
According to one story:
It is said that some Chinese cook working during the Gold Rush served it as a personal “fuck you” to some drunk American miners.
Just like the Chinese-American chop suey, chukadon is made with bits and pieces of vegetables, and whatever small amounts of of meat or seafood can be had. It is an ideal dish to make with leftovers. Dice vegetables and meat (or seafood), stir fry, season, add sauce, scoop over rice in a bowl and you have chukadon.
So, you see, the world of donburi is a big one. We hope to discover as much of it as our digestive system will allow.