My Special Love for Japanese Cuisine and the Unagi Don

I have this special love for Japanese culture. Unlike many of the Filipino millenials however, who mostly associated Japan with afternoon anime shows, I was introduced to the Japanese culture through their cuisine.

As a child, my parents would take me to Kitaro on special occasions. I still remember what we would always order: tuna and salmon sashimi, a platter of ebi tempura and three bowls of sticky rice. I grew up loving Japanese cuisine and as I grew, I became more curious about their other food — surely they eat more than just tempura and sashimi.

And so, I turned to YouTube to look at food reviews and recipes. I would watch countless Japanese travel videos, documentaries, Oogui eaters and cooking tutorials. Basically, that was where I was introduced to the savory unagi don.

So what is unagi?

Unagi is the Japanese word for freshwater eel. Perhaps uncommon to the west, but it is a popular and prized dish in Japan. It is traditionally eaten during the Day of the Ox, the hottest part of the summer, and is said to provide strength and vitality to the consumer.

It’s cooking process of the unagi consists of grilling atop hard oak charcoals, steaming to reduce the fat, seasoning in sweet sauce (many unagi restaurants have their own secret recipes concerning this sauce), and grilled once more.

Unagi don is the name of the completed masterpiece. The succulent unagi would be resting on a bed of rice, its rich sauce seeping into the grains. It is as beautiful as it is filling, and for years, I pined after it.

Then finally, I had a taste of this wonderful dish.

Ippudo

Hidden away in SM Fashion Mall, Ippudo provides a gorgeous look and taste of Fukuoka, Japan. Its interiors reminded me greatly of the traditional restaurant designs as I’ve seen in Japanese films. It seemed to be the perfect setting to have my first ever unagi don.

The unagi was just as I imagined it would be. The fish was very soft, you could tear it apart with your chopsticks. Frankly, I didn’t even have to chew; it would simply break apart on my tongue. That was how soft it was.

As for the flavor, it is the perfect blend of the natural flavors of the eel and the sauce. The fish itself reminds me of bangus belly, every bite reminiscent of it. The sauce on the other hand is a satisfying blend of sweet and salty. It complements the natural taste of the eel. It doesn’t battle with it; it dances with it gracefully and harmoniously.

The unagi don isn’t complete with rice — the rice is served in a hot stone bowl and is doused in the unagi’s sauce. What I love about it is how the sauce doesn’t overpower anything in the dish. It is very subtle, but it completes it nicely.

I highly recommend this dish. If you are searching for an experience in a meal, this has to be it. It is satifying, it is very pleasing to the eye and to the palette. Just be careful though; it’s hot.

Zensho

Zensho has to be my family’s go-to restaurant whenever 1) we find ourselves at Tomas Morato, 2) we can afford a buffet and 3) we crave for delicious Japanese food. Its dishes are great and flavorful, and I am personally fond of their baked oysters. But, I have to say, I don’t think I’ll be having an unagi don here again.

The unagi and the rice were simply doused in teriyaki sauce, which I found too sweet. It easily overpowered the natural taste of the unagi, which is somewhat disappointing. Still, it is a very filling meal, and if you are fond of teriyaki sauces, might as well give it a try.

The Verdict

As a whole, my experience with unagi has been wonderful. It has at least reached, if not entirely surpassed my expectations, and I am very happy that I had a chance to try it.

As I write this, I have discovered that there is an unagi dish in UCC, a Japanese cafe and restaurant that has interested me greatly. I look forward to try it and I will continue to try and find many other unagi dishes out there.

I suppose this amply explains how much I’ve fallen deeper in love with unagi don. I’m certain you’d fall in love with it too.