Vegan Unagi Don (うなぎもどき丼 - Unagi Modoki Don)
After the introduction of Buddhism to Japan, the consumption of animal products was banned for about 1200 years. This led to the invention of a wide variety of meat and fish substitutes, and unagi is no exception.
While there are various methods to make vegan unagi, I've found that the easiest method that results in the closest texture is to use eggplant. By pan-frying and then steaming it in unagi sauce, the eggplant can absorb a ton of flavor. Then, the mock unagi is glazed and blasted with a torch to caramelize the sauce and give it a smoky flavor.
Why This Recipe Works?
- Cutting slits in the eggplant helps it soak up the flavors of the sauce and gives it an appearance that closely resembles unagi.
- Pan-frying the eggplant in oil gives the surface of the eggplant a beautiful mahogany hue while imparting a rich creaminess that evokes the mouthfeel of unagi.
- Glazing and then torching the eggplant at the end caramelizes the sauce, giving the eggplant a lacquered appearance with just a bit of char.
- Serving this over rice cooked with tofu and ground sesame seeds boosts the protein content of this meal and adds a wonderful nutty flavor that compliments the savory-sweet vegan unagi.
Ingredients for Vegan Unagi
- Eggplant - I used Japanese eggplant for this because its relatively slender shape looks the most like unagi, but any eggplant with relatively few seeds, such as Italian or Chinese, should work.
- Oil - Unagi gets its creamy texture because it contains a lot of fat. To mimic this texture, you need to add a bit of oil to the eggplant. The oil also helps brown the surface of the eggplant, giving it a more convincing grilled unagi appearance.
- Sake - Kabayaki sauce has the same ingredients as teriyaki sauce, but because we need to steam the eggplant to cook it, I include a little extra sake, so there is enough liquid in the pan. The alcohol burns off while cooking, so you don't need to worry about that. As for the type of sake to use, I have a video explaining why sake is used in Japanese cuisine, so check that out for more details.
- Soy Sauce - The primary seasoning ingredient in unagi sauce is soy sauce. I used Kikkoman soy sauce for this.
- Sugar - Sugar balances out the soy sauce's saltiness and gives the glaze its shiny appearance. If you want this to be vegan, make sure you use evaporated cane sugar instead of white sugar.
How to Make Vegan Unagi
Trim both ends from the eggplant and then cut it half lengthwise. Make a slit down the center of the cut surface about ⅔ of the way through. Be careful not to cut too deep, or your eggplant will fall apart.
Make shallow slits in the cut surface of the eggplant about ⅛-inch apart from one end to the other. The slits
Cut shallow slits ⅛-inch apart down the length of the cut surface of the eggplant. These slits are primarily cosmetic and only need to be about 1/20-inch deep.
Add the oil to a frying pan over medium-high heat and place the eggplant in the pan with the cut side down.
Use a spatula to press down on the eggplant to ensure the cut surface makes good contact with the pan and let them fry until they're golden brown.
Once they have some good color, flip them over and then add the sake, soy sauce, and sugar to the pan (make sure you get the sugar in the pan and not on top of the eggplant). Cover with a lid and adjust the temperature to maintain a full simmer.
Steam the eggplant until it is tender (about 7 minutes. Be sure to flip the eggplant over about halfway through and keep an eye on the amount of liquid in the pan to ensure it doesn't burn (you can add some water if it's looking too thick).
When the eggplant is cooked through, transfer it to a wire rack with the cut-side facing up. You can gently press on the eggplant a bit to flatten it out if you like.
The sauce in the pan should be thick and syrupy at this point, but if it's not, you can boil it for a little longer to thicken it up. Next, use a spoon or pastry brush to glaze the tops of the eggplant with the unagi sauce in the pan.
Use a kitchen torch to caramelize and lightly char the glaze on the eggplant. It's crucial the air-fuel mixture of your torch is set correctly, or your food will end up tasting like gas (see the video below for more info on this).
If you don't have a torch, you can also use an oven set to broil.
Serve the vegan unagi over rice with any remaining unagi sauce drizzled over the rice. Garnish with chopped scallions.
The bowl, condiment plate and chopstick rest pictured above was sent over by Musubi Kiln. They have a fantastic selection of both classic and modern Japanese ceramics and tableware and they ship around the world. Get 5% off your order by using coupon code “NORECIPES” at checkout.
Other Plant-Based Japanese Recipes
Unagi is the Japanese word for eel, and don is short for donburi, the name for a large rice bowl. The dish usually consists of grilled and glazed eel on top of a bowl of rice, but there is a plant-based alternative called Unagi Modoki Don (うなぎもどき丼), which literally means "mock unagi rice bowl." Since meat consumption was banned in Japan for about 1200 years, a rich cuisine of mock meat and seafood was developed, including plant-based alternatives to unagi like this.
Unagi don is a four-syllable name pronounced as follows:
u like oops
na like knob
gi like gear
don like donut
Unagi sauce is the Western name for Japanese kabayaki sauce. The ingredients for kabayaki sauce and teriyaki sauce are identical (consisting of soy sauce, sugar, sake, and sometimes mirin), but the difference is in how the dishes are prepared.
While it may not always be vegan due to the way restaurants handle it, the unagi sauce in this recipe is plant-based.
- 150 grams firm tofu
- 155 grams short-grain rice (1 rice cooker cup)
- 13 grams sesame seeds (2 tablespoons)
For vegan unagi
- 375 grams eggplant (~2 Japanese eggplants)
- 2 tablespoons vegetable oil
- ¼ cup sake
- 2 tablespoons soy sauce
- 2 tablespoons evaporated cane sugar
- Scallions (chopped, for garnish)
For Tofu Sesame Rice
- Wash the rice and add it to a rice cooker bowl. Fill the cooker to just under the 1 cup marker with water.
- Crumble the tofu into a clean dishcloth or butter muslin and then gather up the corners of the cloth and twist them together to wring out as much water as you can from the tofu. Add the crumbled tofu to the rice.
- Grind the sesame seeds using a mortar and pestle or spice grinder and add them to the rice cooker as well.
- Set the rice cooker as you normally would to cook the rice.
For Vegan Unagi
- Trim the ends off of the eggplant and slice each one in half lengthwise. Cut a slit down the center of each eggplant, being careful not to cut through the skin.
- Cut shallow slits ⅛-inch apart down the length of the cut surface of the eggplant.
- Heat a frying pan over medium-high heat until hot, and then add the oil and eggplant, cut side down.
- Fry until golden brown, and then flip the eggplant over and add the sake, soy sauce, sugar.
- Cover the pan with a lid and adjust to heat to maintain a soft boil. Steam the eggplant for 7 minutes, flipping the eggplant over halfway through.
- When the eggplant is cooked, transfer it to a wire rack with the cut-side facing up. Use a pastry brush or spoon to glaze the top of the eggplant with some of the unagi sauce in the pan. If the sauce is still watery, you can reduce it on the stove to thicken it up.
- Use a torch to caramelize the glaze. You can also pop it into a toaster oven set to broil.
- Serve two portions of rice and drizzle any remaining unagi sauce over the rice. Top with the eggplant and garnish with scallions.
Laura Kumin says
Going to make this tonight but don't have a rice cooker. Any advice on how much water to use if making rice/sesame seeds/tofu in a pot.
Marc Matsumoto says
Hi Laura, you can follow the rice cooking part of the instructions for making my sushi rice: https://norecipes.com/sushi-rice-recipe/ which already has the amount of water reduced. The only thing is that this makes double the amount of rice (which changes the ratio of tofu/sesame to rice unless you double those two). I don't recommend halving the rice for stovetop cooking as it never turns out right (it becomes much more sensitive to temp and tends to start burning before it's fully cooked or gets mushy).
Laura Kumin says
Unfortunately, I didn’t see your reply until after I made dinner. My rice on the stovetop was edible but not top notch. However the eggplant/sauce was delicious.
Marc Matsumoto says
Sorry to hear my response didn't make it in time. I'm based in Japan so there's a time time difference. I'm glad to hear you enjoyed the eggplant though, I saw your tweet and it looked delicious!
Kathy Stroup says
That was incredibly delicious and not too complicated, especially considering the results! After a long day of bread baking and cooking for my family yesterday, I was ready to take a break and really enjoy cooking something just for myself. This was the perfect treat!
I modified the side element by using cauliflower cut into tiny florets instead of rice. I sautéed them in plain sesame oil, covered the pan and steamed them until they were near-tender, then added the tofu and ground sesame seeds. I seasoned it with your Umami Salt https://norecipes.com/umami-seasoning-salt/ for depth and balance. I liked it better than rice!
The eggplant came out so creamy and light, not tasting of oil at all. The sauce was divine, but what put this dish on the next level was torching it. Yep, you finally gave me the excuse I needed to buy a kitchen torch!
Thank you so much for this beautifully thought-out recipe!
Marc Matsumoto says
Thanks Kathy! Such a good idea using cauliflower. I never quite got the point of cauliflower because it takes something easy to eat and makes it harder to pick up 🤣
Mike Pierce (formerly with Black Diamond Brewing) says
Long time no com bud! Hope things are great and you and yours are healthy and happy. We made this dish last night and it absolutely floored us. Just completely effin wow. Deb and I agreed, the most flavorful/best texture combo eggplant dish we've ever tasted.
You hit a Homeric home run with this one. Thank you!!
One last request - how do I purchase stuff through your platform? (I'm getting old - haha - need pointers)
Keep on crushing it.
Marc Matsumoto says
Wow Mike, it's been a minute! What are you up to these days? As for purchasing things through my platform, do you mean like kitchen gear and ingredients? If so, I have shops on a couple platforms and you can use the links/coupons below:
INGREDIENTS (10% off with “MARCSFAVORITES”)
PLATES (5% off with “NORECIPES”)
KITCHEN TOOLS (10% off with “NORECIPES”)