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Eel Elegance: Tracing the Origins of Unadon

14/10/2023 3:00 PM

Unadon, Japan's celebrated eel dish, seamlessly fuses tradition and elegance. Its history is rooted in the Edo period with eel, or Unagi, being a symbol of prosperity. Grilled over charcoal, basted with kabayaki sauce, and served on steamed rice, its flavors and cultural relevance are unmatched.
Close-up of a traditional Unadon dish in a Japanese bowl


Unadon, a renowned eel dish from Japan, offers a unique culinary experience that blends tradition and elegance in every bite. To truly appreciate the flavors and cultural significance of Unadon, it's essential to understand its origins.

The history of Unadon dates back to the Edo period, when eel farming became a popular practice in Japan. Eel, known as Unagi, was considered a delicacy and was often served on special occasions. The dish gained popularity over time and has now become a staple in Japanese cuisine.

The preparation of Unadon involves grilling freshwater eel over charcoal and basting it with a sweet and savory sauce, known as kabayaki sauce. The eel is then served over a bed of steamed rice, creating a delectable combination of flavors and textures.

Unadon's cultural significance extends beyond its taste. The dish is associated with the midsummer Day of the Ox, or Doyo-no-Ushi-no-Hi, a traditional holiday in Japan. Eel is believed to provide stamina and vitality during the hot summer months.

Join us as we delve deeper into the origins and flavors of Unadon, a beloved eel dish from Japan.

The Tradition of Unagi in Japan

Vintage image of eel farmers in the Edo period of Japan

Unagi, also known as freshwater eel, has been an integral part of Japanese cuisine and culture for centuries. The tradition of consuming eel dates back to the Edo period (1603-1868) and is believed to have medicinal and nutritional benefits. In Japan, unagi is typically consumed during the summer months, particularly on the Day of the Ox, which falls on the midsummer day. It is during this season that unagi is said to provide energy and vitality to overcome the summer heat.

The practice of eel farming, or unagi no hosomaki, was developed in Japan to meet the high demand for this prized fish. Eels are caught in the wild and transported to freshwater ponds, where they are raised until they reach maturity. In the past, this process was considered a form of fishery, but in modern times, it has become a sustainable and regulated industry that supports local economies and maintains the traditional Japanese culinary practice of consuming unagi.

The practice of consuming unagi has also been influenced by Japanese folklore and symbolism. Eels are revered in Japanese mythology as animals with spiritual powers that can bring good luck, health, and prosperity. This has led to eels being associated with special occasions and celebrations, particularly during the summer festivals.

Overall, unagi has become a symbol of Japanese tradition and culture. Its consumption and farming practices have been passed down from generation to generation, ensuring the continuity of this important culinary tradition.

Unadon: A Unique Eel Dish

Chef meticulously grilling eel with kabayaki sauce over charcoal

Unadon, also known as una-donburi, is a traditional Japanese eel dish that has delighted culinary enthusiasts for centuries. The dish combines perfectly grilled eel with a sweet and savory sauce served over a bed of steamed rice.

Unadon is prepared using a specific kind of eel, the freshwater eel, or unagi in Japanese. The eel is first filleted, gutted, and boned. Then it is skewered and grilled over charcoal until crispy on the outside and tender on the inside. The grilled eel is brushed with a special sauce, called kabayaki, which is a blend of soy sauce, mirin, sugar, and sake.

The sauce gives Unadon its distinctive flavor, with its caramelized sweetness and umami-rich depth. The perfectly grilled eel and the flavorsome sauce are then served on top of a bed of steamed rice, creating a perfect balance of textures and flavors.

Unadon is often served in special restaurants that specialize in eel dishes, called unagi-ya. These restaurants typically have their own secret recipes for the kabayaki sauce and often use charcoal grills to impart a smoky flavor to the eel.

The Essence of Unadon Sauce

Shimmering kabayaki sauce in a bowl with its ingredients around it

Unadon, the traditional Japanese grilled eel dish, is incomplete without its signature sauce, known as kabayaki sauce. This sweet and savory eel sauce is key to the distinctive flavors of Unadon.

The process of making Unadon sauce involves simmering a blend of sweet soy sauce, mirin, sake, and sugar until it turns into a thick, syrupy consistency. The sauce is then brushed onto the grilled eel fillets, giving them a glossy sheen and enhancing their flavor.

“The key to achieving the perfect Unadon sauce lies in the careful balance of sweet and savory flavors. The richness of the sauce is what makes Unadon so irresistible” - Chef Takashi Nakamura, Unadon specialist.

While the recipe for Unadon sauce may appear simple, it requires a keen eye and expert timing to achieve the perfect balance of flavors. The sauce should have a depth of flavor that complements the eel rather than overpowering it.

Kabayaki sauce is not only limited to Unadon but is also used as a marinade for other grilled and broiled dishes in Japanese cuisine. Its versatility and bold flavors have made it a favorite among food enthusiasts around the world.

Now that we have unlocked the secrets of Unadon sauce, it’s time to recreate this Japanese delicacy in our own kitchens. Follow the instructions in our Unadon recipe section to create a dish that is sure to impress.

Preparing the Perfect Unadon


Recreating the flavors of Unadon at home is easier than you might think. Follow these steps to prepare the perfect Unadon:

  1. Grill the eel: Heat a grill or grill pan to medium-high heat. Brush the eel with a mixture of soy sauce, sake, and mirin. Grill the eel for 2-3 minutes on each side until it’s cooked through and caramelized.
  2. Prepare the sauce: Combine soy sauce, mirin, sake, sugar, and dashi in a saucepan and bring to a boil over medium heat. Reduce the heat to low and let it simmer until the sauce thickens. This is the kabayaki sauce that gives Unadon its signature taste.
  3. Cook the rice: Rinse 2 cups of sushi rice several times until the water runs clear. Drain the rice and add 2 1/2 cups of water in a rice cooker. Cook the rice according to the manufacturer’s instructions.
  4. Assemble the dish: Place a portion of cooked rice in a bowl. Lay the grilled eel on top of the rice and drizzle the kabayaki sauce over it. Garnish with sliced green onions, and serve hot.

With these simple steps, you can enjoy the delicious taste of Unadon in the comfort of your own home. Impress your friends and family with this traditional Japanese dish that they’re sure to love.

Unadon Variations: Beyond the Basics

While the traditional Unadon is a savory delight, there are several variations that showcase the versatility of eel in Japanese cuisine.


Unagi-don is a popular Japanese dish that is quite similar to Unadon. In this dish, the grilled eel is served over rice with a sweet soy sauce glaze. The name of this dish translates to "eel rice bowl," making it a perfect lunch option.


Unaju is another variation of Unadon, where the grilled eel is placed on top of rice and served in a lacquered box. The box adds to the aesthetics of the dish, making it a popular choice for special occasions.

Grilled Eel Sushi

Grilled eel sushi, also known as "unagi sushi," is a sushi roll that features grilled eel topped with a sweet soy sauce glaze. This dish offers a unique twist on traditional sushi and is beloved by eel enthusiasts.

These creative variations of Unadon showcase the versatility and popularity of eel in Japanese cuisine. From rice bowls to sushi, the delicate flavors of eel can be savored in a variety of ways.

Health Benefits of Unadon

Unadon, aside from being a flavorful and elegant dish, also offers various health benefits. Eel, the main ingredient in Unadon, is packed with essential vitamins and nutrients that boost overall health.

One of the most notable health benefits of eel is its high omega-3 fatty acid content. Omega-3 fatty acids are known for their anti-inflammatory properties, which reduce the risk of heart disease, stroke, and arthritis. Eel also contains vitamins A, D, and E, which support healthy skin, vision, and immune function.

Moreover, Unadon contains several other nutrients that promote good health. One serving of Unadon offers a significant amount of protein, which contributes to building and repairing muscles. Additionally, Unadon contains various minerals such as calcium and iron, which are essential for strong bones and healthy blood circulation.

Overall, Unadon is not only a delightful dish but also a nutritious one that serves as a wholesome choice. Savor the flavors of Unadon while reaping the benefits of this healthy and delicious dish.

Unadon: A Cultural Icon

Unadon is more than just a delicious eel dish; it holds a significant place in Japanese culture. Eel has been valued in Japan since ancient times for its nutritional properties, and it was believed to have medicinal benefits such as improving circulation and preventing fatigue. Unadon, with its tender and rich eel meat, became a symbol of prosperity and good health.

In addition to its nutritional value, eel has also taken on symbolic meaning in Japanese culture. In the Edo period, eels were seen as a symbol of perseverance and adaptability, as they are able to navigate upstream to spawn against strong currents. This became an analogy for the Japanese people, who saw themselves as overcoming obstacles and persisting through adversity.

Traditional Japanese dishes often reflect the country’s values and customs, and Unadon is no exception. The dish is often served in lacquered bowls, symbolizing the importance of presentation, respect, and attention to detail in Japanese culture.

Unadon is also closely associated with Japanese summertime traditions. In Japan, the midsummer day of the Ox, known as Doyo no Ushi no Hi, is traditionally celebrated by eating eel to gain stamina and endurance during the hot and humid season. Unadon is the most popular eel dish consumed on this day, and it has become a beloved part of Japanese summertime culture.

Exploring Unadon Around the World

Unadon has become a beloved dish not only in Japan but also around the world, with its popularity steadily increasing. Its unique blend of flavors and elegant presentation have made it a favorite among food enthusiasts, and it is now served in Japanese restaurants worldwide.

Unadon has also inspired various adaptations and interpretations in different parts of the world. In some countries, it is served with a fusion twist, incorporating local ingredients and spices to create a new culinary experience. In others, it is served as a takeout or convenience food, with pre-packaged versions available in grocery stores.

Unadon has also sparked interest in other eel dishes from different cultures, with grilled eel becoming a popular menu item in many Asian and European countries. In fact, grilled eel is a staple in many countries, including China, Korea, and Spain, among others.

Despite the regional differences, Unadon and other eel dishes share a common love for this versatile ingredient. The unique combination of tender, savory eel and sweet, tangy sauce is a winning combination that transcends borders.


After exploring the fascinating history, cultural significance, and culinary excellence of Unadon, we have uncovered the essence and elegance of this renowned eel dish. From its traditional roots in Japan, Unadon has gained international recognition and continues to delight taste buds across the globe. Unadon's unique combination of perfectly grilled eel and kabayaki sauce served over steaming rice offers a symphony of sweet and savory flavors that is hard to resist. The dish's versatility is showcased through its various adaptations, such as Unagi-don, Unaju, and grilled eel sushi. Beyond its delectable taste, Unadon offers several health benefits, serving as a source of omega-3 fatty acids and other essential nutrients. Additionally, the dish holds a special place in Japanese culture, with its connection to history, symbolism, and traditional dining customs. Whether you experience it in Japan or prepare it in your own kitchen, Unadon's elegance and taste offer a culinary experience like no other. So why not indulge in the flavors and cultural significance of Unadon and elevate your culinary journey to new heights. 


Q: What is unadon?

A: Unadon is a classic Japanese rice bowl dish topped with grilled eel fillet.

Q: What are the origins of unadon?

A: Unadon has its origins in Japan and is believed to have been created in the Edo period.

Q: What is kabayaki?

A: Kabayaki is a cooking method for eel where the fish is filleted, skewered, and grilled with a sweet and savory sauce called tare.

Q: What is tare?

A: Tare is a sweet and savory sauce used in Japanese cooking, particularly in dishes like unadon and teriyaki.

Q: Can I make my own unagi sauce?

A: Yes, you can make your own homemade unagi sauce by combining soy sauce, mirin, sake, and sugar.

A: Some popular side dishes to serve with unadon include miso soup, pickled vegetables, and a simple salad.

Q: What is sansho pepper?

A: Sansho pepper is a Japanese spice that has a citrusy and peppery flavor. It is often used as a garnish for grilled eel dishes.