Donburi: the rice of a Japanese food trend

May 29, 2017 06.00PM |
 

by Lim Qiu Ping

“DONBURI” simply means the bowl. As a food item, it refers to a bowl of Japanese short-grain rice topped with certain ingredients. It could be fried cutlets of different meats, cooked or raw seafood, or curry, just to name a few. There are different categories of donburi depending on the ingredient resting on the rice.

Though the donburi is not unknown in Singapore, the spotlight has shone more on the ramen or sushi. But there is an increased appreciation of this Japanese rice bowl dish in recent years, towards specific types of donburi:

 

1. Current rage in town – the ten-don

Ten-don is a Japanese compound of two words – the “tempura” and “donburi”. The bowl of rice is topped with tempura, which is deep-fried battered vegetables or seafood. This particular type of donburi has been on the radar of Japanese food enthusiasts since the first ten-don specialty restaurant, Ten-don Ginza Itsuki, opened at Tanjong Pagar in July 2015.

Ten-don Ginza Itsuki

Image from Facebook user Foodogenic by nanatang.

There are only two offerings available at Ten-don Ginza Itsuki – the Special Ten-don and Vegetable Ten-don. The Special Ten-don (at $13.90) consists of two tempura prawns, an assortment of tempura vegetables, slices of tempura chicken meat and a tempura egg on top of the rice. The Vegetable Ten-don (at $12.90), on the other hand, has only vegetable tempura on rice.

Tempura ingredients are fried separately, according to the temperature optimal to cook them into fresh, crispiness without being excessively oily. In addition, the ten-don here is served in beautiful bowls made by the 400-year old Arita porcelain brand.

Near to two years after its opening, customers are still queuing up for a taste. Lines could be formed within 30 minutes of its 11.30am opening time and definitely during lunch and dinner hours.    

Ten-don Kohaku

Image from Facebook user Ong KiAn YEe.

Ten-don Kohaku, also a ten-don specialty restaurant, entered the scene in June 2016 to a similar welcome at Suntec City. It sells Edomae ten-don, or ten-don in the Edo-era style – a category of Japanese cuisine which is known to be heavier in taste.

The menu is simple, with items differentiated by the one with meat or without; drizzled with the original sauce or spicy. While the Kohaku Ten-don and its spicy version cost $15, the Vegetable Ten-don and its spicy version are a dollar cheaper.

For the tempura, ingredients included crab stick, squid, shrimp and chicken breast and an assortment of vegetables, such as pumpkin, long beans and mushroom, cooked in oil blended with sesame oil for an extra fragrance. The fluffy rice, which is of Nanatsuboshi variety, is imported from Hokkaido

The Suntec establishment has been so popular, another branch opened at Boat Quay in December of the same year. Queues at either locations could last more than an hour.

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Don Meijin

Image from Lim Qiu Ping

Don Meijin, the newest addition to the Ramen Champion foodcourt at the 4th floor of Bugis+ since February this year, has cooked up a local kick to the ten-don: the Spicy Chilli Crab ten-don.

The regular ten-don (priced at $13.80) has tempura featuring black tiger prawns, seasonal fish fillet, asparagus, pumpkin, eggplant and the kakiage, which is made of mixed vegetable strips. The aromatic bed of rice, specially imported from Hokkaido, is cooked to al dente consistency. Then, to create the Spicy Chilli Crab ten-don, a Japanised spicy chilli crab sauce – prepared for more than four hours using fresh chicken broth, chunks of snow crab, mirin and Japanese soy sauce – is poured over the tempura. This particular ten-don costs $14.80.

Don Meijin boasts of being the first ten-don shop to introduce the Ochazuke method of enjoying the ten-don. With a top-up of $2, the customer is given some wasabi, rice crisps and a pot of dashi soup. Mix them into the remaining rice and tempura pieces of a half-eaten ten-don to enjoy the rest of the dish as rice soup. This is how it’s done in Japan, apparently!

 

2. The craze for raw fish on rice – the chirashi-don, bara chirashi-don and kaisen-don

Chirashi means “to scatter”. So, expect to see in chirashi-don a colourful and artistic “scatter” of sashimi, or slices of various raw fish, on top of vinegary sushi rice. It is said that chirashi-don began as a dish meant to utilise leftover fish parts after the best portions have been used for sashimi platters or making sushi.

The bara chirashi-don is supposed to be the humbler variation of chirashi-don but has come into its own nowadays; just as fancy and happily, less pricey. As opposed to thick slices of sashimi, blocks of fish and other ingredients (usually cooked or marinated) are laden on the sushi rice.

By 2015, comparison of the most affordable, or value-for-money chirashi-don and bara chirashi-don was rife in Singapore with Japanese food enthusiasts looking for joints selling chirashi-don below $30 and bara chirashi-don below $20.

The Sushi Bar

The Sushi Bar, specifically its branch at Far East Plaza, makes their chirashi-don with slices of salmon, yellowtail, tuna, swordfish, scallops and Japanese-styled rolled omelette; a piece of blowtorched salmon belly; and salmon roe attractively spread on top of sushi rice. This is the normal bowl priced at $24.90. A basic bowl without the scallop or salmon belly is cheaper at $19.90 while the premium one is priced seasonally.

Sushiro

Image from Facebook user Sushiro Singapore.

A bara chirashi-don from Sushiro, a sushi bar opened in late November 2015 at the basement of Thomson Plaza, allows one to enjoy a heap of chunky raw salmon, tuna, octopus, prawn and salmon roe on top of sushi rice. The serving is well-made, generous and more noteworthy for its price, as Sushiro’s bara chirashi-don is said to be the cheapest around at $12.80.

Teppei Japanese Restaurant and Teppei Syudoku

Image from Facebook user HappyYummy.

Teppei’s bara chirashi-don must be mentioned at this point, having been credited as the brand which ushered in the fervour for the raw fish donburi since its first takeaway outlet opened at Takashimaya in September 2014. It’s donburi is a variant of the bara chirashi-don, called the kaisen-don. The difference is in the bed of Japanese rice prepared without vinegar. Teppei lightly treated its sweet Niigata rice grains with a savoury house sauce instead.

Its kaisen-don boasts a marinated pile of raw salmon, tuna and white fish chunks, with a sprinkling of salmon roe, daikon sprout and bits of tempura batter. There is even a Do-It-Yourself (DIY) version, sold at its Ion Orchard takeaway outlet, where customers can choose what goes into the kaisen-don: two, four or five choices of seafood to go on top of the rice. Options consist of salmon, tuna, swordfish and yellowtail, whelk, baby scallop, octopus and squid.

The Teppei brand has its flagship restaurant at Orchid Hotel in Tanjong Pagar, where the kaisen-don is sold for $17.60. At its takeaway outlets, named Teppei Syokudo, the kaisen-don goes for $16. And depending on the number of seafood chosen, the DIY kaisen-don can cost $8.50, $15.80 or $19.80.

 

3. The next donburi rush – unatama-don?

Image from Facebook user Gnninethree.

Man Man Japanese Unagi Restaurant, part of the Teppei chain, only opened last October. Already, customers are willing to stand in line for more than two hours to eat at this unagi specialty restaurant in Chinatown, along Keong Saik Road.

As the term “unatama-don” indicates, it is a type of donburi served with “unagi” and “tamagoyaki” – freshwater eel and Japanese-styled rolled omelette – placed on top of rice. Live eels are imported from the Mikawa Isshiki region, which means the unagi is prepared on the spot by cutting, deboning and then grilling the eel flesh with a sweet and salty soy-based marinate called tare. The spongy slabs of tamagoyaki, with its lighter flavour, contrast well against the savouriness of the unagi.

A small unatama-don costs $18.60 while a medium and large bowl set the customer back $25.80 and $32.80 respectively.

Note that all prices given come without additional charges and tax.

 

Featured image by Pixabay user Sharonang. (CC0 1.0)

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