As far as Japanese rice bowls go, the unagi don — or grilled eel bowls — is one of the more luxurious and treasured dishes in Japan’s culinary canon.
It is significant enough to have a specific date every year, coinciding with the start of summer, allocated for the exclusive consumption of the Japanese freshwater eel.
A nod to Japan’s obsession with freshness, speciality restaurants often have live eels on their premises which are gutted a la minute and quickly picked for bones. There are many ways of cooking and preparing the plump slippery fillets depending on region to region but they’re nearly always grilled to succulent perfection over a binchotan. The biggest factor that makes or breaks any unagi don? The tare — a savoury-sweet marinade of soy sauce and mirin that brings out the eel’s delicate flavour.
Japanese restaurants in Singapore are able to recreate a relatively authentic dining experience in Singapore, from importing fresh eels into the kitchens and even putting on theatrical shows of grilling fillets over crackling charcoal. Feeling hungry? Here’s where to indulge.
6 best spots for the best unagi don in Singapore:
(Featured and hero image: @Una Una)
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This restaurant, by the ever-gregarious chef Teppei Yamashita, is notoriously popular. Its Keong Saik outlet has continuously commanded snaking queues even before becoming a yearly fixture on Michelin’s Bib Gourmand list. Only live eels from Aichi, Japan are used here which experienced chefs gut during service to ensure freshness.
The glass-fronted kitchen allows diners to see the whole process — the gutting and deboning to skewering and grilling — by the counter seats. No part of the eel is discarded, instead, they are used as sides like kimoyaki (grilled eel liver) and deep-fried bone crackers.
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Singaporean’s love for unagi is well-known in Japan, so much so that it has attracted the 125-year-old brand Miyagawa Honten to open its first overseas outpost here. The Tokyo-based restaurant chain marinates their eels in a tare sauce that’s been religiously used through its four generations of owners. Instead of Japanese eel, Unagiya Ichinoji goes for a sustainable option by using live eels reared from their farm in Indonesia.
The massive hitsumabushi — good for three people — is the main attraction here. There are also other styles of unadons available: Fukuoka-style (seiro mushi), where the unagi is grilled then steamed and Osaka-style (mamushi), grilled unagi with yam paste, mentaiko and strips of omelette.
(Image credit: @unagiyaichinoji via Instagram)
If you want variety, head to Una Una, where you’ll experience the delicacy in different formats that range from Unaju (unagi bento box) and Gozen (set meals) to sushi rolls, and grilled kabayaki sets. Its signature dish, the Unagi Hitsumabushi is affordable with prices that start from S$9.80, and sees fresh unagi that’s been coated with the a special sweet and savoury sauce that’s been flown in from Japan. The eel is then grilled over temperature-controlled charcoals twice, leaving it with a glossy crisp on the outside while keeping the flesh fluffy inside.
(Image credit: Una Una)
Uya Unagi has other dishes on the menu such as chirashi, beef bowls and tempura dons. The star item here is still the unagi offerings. Live eels are imported and kept in special chilled pods with filtered water to recreate their living conditions in Japan. They’re freshly prepared every day, marinated in a tare sauce that’s more savoury than sweet (also, a secret recipe that’s been with owner Yuhei Kikukawa’s family for years).
Diners can get a whole eel with the unagi rice box, which has chopped eel presented lengthwise over rice, or the Nagayaki way with whole unagi — grilled with tare or just salt — and rice on the side. Those with smaller appetites are advised to go for the unagi rice bowls or the ‘healthy’ bowl which has sous-vide egg and seasonal vegetables.
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Chikuyotei has its beginnings as an unagi restaurant in 1992, but has evolved into a fine-dining spot with kaiseki dinners. Still, even with the long list of items (ranging from sashimi to hot pot) on its menu, Chikuyotei manages to circle attention back to its unadon.
Lunch menus here all revolve around unagi bowls, and dinner omakase offers it on the same pedestal as wagyu dons and sushi mains. The unagi is prepared in two different ways: simply grilled for more bite or steamed and grilled for softer flesh.
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Xi Man has been gaining number of fans since it opened last year. Chef Ryosuke Deguchi heads the kitchen here, who was personally trained by a chef of a three-Michelin-starred restaurant in Kyoto. The latter also serves as the restaurant’s Principal Partner. Rather than involving a steaming process during the preparation of the eel, the unagi is simply grilled and brushed with a tare, before its grilled again. As a result of this Kansi method of cooking the eel and the type of eel used (the Miyazaki eel is much firmer in texture!), the fish has a wonderful crunchy texture while still retaining a beautifully soft inside.
(Image credit: Xi Man)