A Small Universe in a Bowl

The word donburi is the abbreviation of the word donburibachi, which is a deep, sturdy ceramic dish about the size of an oversized rice bowl used to hold rice or noodles. Some have lids, some don’t. Donburi also refers to the meals which are called in English "rice bowl dishes"; namely rice topped with various ingredients gloriously piled in the donburibachi. Another name for this meal is donburimono. In this article, however, we will refer only to the meal as donburi. Donburi itself is often abbreviated to -don and used as a suffix; for example, a dish made with tempura is tendon (ten is short for tempura); a dish made with yakitori would be called yakitoridon, and so forth.
Donburi are known for being rather unassuming, quick and easy to eat everyday meals, and they have been gaining in popularity worldwide as one of the categories of Japanese cuisine.

History of Donburi
It's said that the roots of donburi can be traced back to a dish called hohan, which was popular during the Muromachi and Warring States periods (early14th to early 17th century). Hohan consisted of a bowl of rice topped with various types of colorful ingredients cut into small pieces which then had broth poured over it. A food for the upper classes at that time, it was often served to guests, as it had a beautiful appearance and was simple to prepare. Originally, hohan was Buddhist temple cuisine; fresh vegetables in the five colors of white, yellow, red, green and black along with some dried vegetables were finely sliced and seasoned, attractively arranged atop white rice and eaten after clear broth was poured over the dish. In later years, not only vegetables, but seasoned meat and seafood were added. Hohan is also said to be the model for today's ochazuke (pouring green tea, stock, or hot water over rice, usually with savory toppings such as salted salmon, umeboshi, nori, and mitsuba).

And The First Donburi was…
The very first donburi was unadon (una- is short for unagi which is freshwater eel), and it was created mid-Edo period, about 1800-1830. While there are several accounts of the birth of unadon, the common thread among all of them is that a man named Okubo Imasuke was the person responsible for putting the dish together.

The most famous account of the origin of unadon goes like this: Okubo, a sponsor of Edo Kabuki (Edo is the former name for Tokyo), was a great lover of unagi no kabayaki (freshwater eel that has been grilled and seasoned with a salty-sweet sauce). One day, while waiting for a ferry at a small restaurant, he had a craving for unagi, and ordered some along with a bowl of rice. When his meal was brought to his table, however, he heard the call for passengers to board the ferry, so he unceremoniously plopped the plate of unagi upside down on the bowl of rice and carried it with him to the ferry. After disembarking, he sat himself down on the levee to tuck into his meal. When he lifted the upper plate, he found that the heat of the rice had gently steamed the unagi making it even softer and more delectable, and the savory sauce from the grilled eel had soaked into the rice. This was much better than any unagi he had ever eaten, and after returning to Edo, he dubbed this dish unadon and proceeded to market it.

The Spread of Donburi
Originally, meals for the Japanese upper classes had the staple (rice), and accompanying dishes (okazu) placed in separate bowls or plates on the table. Proper etiquette demanded unhurried eating; first bringing a bite of something in the chopsticks to the mouth, then reaching for a small portion of another dish, usually alternating with a bite of rice between a bite of the other dishes. Rice was always eaten plain, and not mixed together with food or sauce. During the Edo period (1603-1868), the production of koikuchi shoyu (dark soy sauce) and the population increase that accompanied the development of the city of Edo saw the rise of the working classes' food culture which was much more casual than the food culture of the elite. For these busy folk, donburi, easy to assemble and easy to eat (you could shovel both rice and the topping in your mouth in one easy motion—an unthinkable breach of etiquette for the upper echelon) became popular as a type of fast-food.

Around the 1830s, tendon was born, made by topping hot rice with tempura, then pouring a savory sauce made from a reduced mixture of stock, soy sauce, sweet rice wine and sugar over the top. There were also unadon, ebitendon (shrimp tempura donburi) and anagodon (salt-water eel donburi), all donburi which tended to be a bit on the extravagant side; at the end of the Edo period, however, a type of donburi called Fukagawadon, which was made with a variety of easily available local clams stewed with green onions and piled on top of rice, were sold cheaply at small food stalls near the Edo Bay, becoming a big hit among the working classes of Edo.

Donburi From Meiji Period On
From 1868-1912 onwards, donburi really started to come into their own; a delicious assortment of varying kinds now could be found all over Japan. Here's a glimpse!

Gyudon (Beef bowl)
During the Meiji period, the western custom of eating beef spread, and gyudon, or beef bowl, was created. Gyudon is a bowl of rice topped with thinly sliced beef and onion cooked in a sauce flavored with soy sauce and sugar. Since 1970, it has become widely popular with the expansion of chain stores that specialize in gyudon.

Oyakodon (Parent and child bowl)
Developed at a chicken specialty restaurant in Tokyo, this is a bowl of rice topped with pieces of chicken cooked in a sauce made of soy sauce, sweet rice wine and sugar bound with a beaten egg. It's said the store owner saw a customer who ordered a chicken hotpot mix an egg into his almost finished dish, and eat it with rice. This inspired the owner to develop oyakodon and add it to the menu. The name oya (parent) ko (child) comes from the fact that both chicken and egg are used.

Magurozukedon (Soy sauce marinated tuna bowl)
Invented during the Edo period about the same time as koikuchi shoyu (dark soy sauce), this is a bowl of rice topped with lean red meat tuna marinated in soy sauce and eaten with condiments such as green onion, ginger, shiso, toasted sesame seeds and shredded toasted dried seaweed. Marinating (-zuke) imparts a delicious flavor, and also serves to preserve the freshness of the fish.

Katsudon (Deep-fried pork cutlet bowl)
Katsu is short for tonkatsu, which is deep-fried pork cutlet. Katsudon is thinly sliced tonkatsu and onion cooked together in a sauce of soy sauce, sweet rice wine and sugar, which is then bound with beaten egg, and then the whole thing tops a big bowl of steaming hot rice and is garnished with a sprig of mitsuba or parsley. It got its start at a Tokyo restaurant during the Taisho period (1912-26); leftover tonkatsu (an extravagant western style meal at the time) from a banquet feast was cooked in a sauce of soy sauce, sweet rice wine and sugar.

Kaisendon (Raw seafood bowl)
Fresh raw shrimp, some sashimi and fish roe are some of the ingredients topping a bowl of rice. Sprinkle with a bit of soy sauce, and dig in! Depending on the season, kaisendon varies greatly in the ingredients used. Since the toppings for the rice are always raw, as opposed to other donburi which use cooked/marinated toppings, freshness is an absolute priority. These seasonal, rich in regional flavor donburi are always ranked within the top three favorite donburi.