This beloved rice dish ranks alongside ramen and curry in the pantheon of Japanese comfort foods.

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Katsu don

This variation mixes things up a bit by topping the rice with a breaded tonkatsu pork cutlet that is garnished with green onion and a beaten egg. The result is one of the heaviest, most stick-to-your- ribs varieties of donburi, and it is so popular as to have inspired regional variations on the dish.

 

There are few things in Japanese cuisine as simple as donburi. Take a delicious Japanese food that you love (usually meat, fish, or vegetables). Simmer it in a slightly sweet sauce created from a combination of the holy trinity of Japanese flavourings: dashi (fish broth), soy sauce and mirin (sweet rice wine). Put that on rice and—voila! You’ve successfully made what is likely the single most common Japanese meal.

The name “donburi” itself can be similarly misleading in its simplicity as it literally means “bowl.” As in a bowl in which you put rice. And this name is often shortened to “don” and tacked on the end of whatever food you throw on top of the rice. Want pork? That’s buta don. Egg? That’s tamago don.

And that’s it, really. I’ve told you most of what you need to know about donburi in a few quick sentences. So, why bother with a multi-page feature on something so simple?

As is often the case with Japanese cuisine, the beauty of donburi comes from experimenting with subtle variations on a very simple dish. From donburi’s humble, utilitarian roots, new culinary strains have evolved, further complicated by all kinds of regional spins on what should be a very straightforward dish.

However, all those variations have one important thing in common, so let’s start by delving a bit deeper into the one ingredient that all donburi share.

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Yoshinoya—a popular, value- priced chain that’s well known for dishing up gyu don. Don’t count on it winning any Michelin stars, though.

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This type of vertical menu is common at budget diners that serve homestyle Japanese food, like donburi.

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Donburi takes its name from the oversized rice bowls in which the dish is typically served.

 

Rice: What’s the big deal?

To understand the importance of donburi to Japanese cuisine, you need to understand rice. People will remark offhandedly that rice is a staple of the Japanese diet. But this platitude fails utterly to capture the reverence that is shown for this tiny grain. It’s a reverence you can start to understand when you’re first instructed to rinse your rice before cooking with it (a process that removes extra starch from the grains, resulting in fewer clumps and a fresher flavour). And you begin to grasp the true meaning of the term ‘staple’ the first time you watch a Japanese friend polish off a big bowl of noodles, only to confess they’re not yet feeling full: something was missing from the meal …

Coming at the topic from a North American culinary headspace, we have no comparable analog for the ever-present position of rice in Japanese diets. Even bread, our go-to starch, doesn’t crop up in our meals with the frequency that rice does in Japan.

With this knowledge under your belt, the prominence of donburi starts to make a lot more sense. If you were eating that much rice, day in and day out, wouldn’t you, too, seek new and innovative ways to dress it up? It’s this innovative impulse that we will chart over the next few pages, reviewing the most popular varieties of donburi. However, this is far from an exhaustive list, and enterprising chefs are constantly innovating on this traditional dish—as you’ll see when we get to talking about poke bowls!

The best part is this: with so much flexibility in what constitutes “donburi,” there are variations out there to please almost any palate. The possibilities are pretty much endless—but the dishes we’re featuring in these next few pages provide an excellent introduction to the range of donburi out there.

And once you’re done exploring some of the many varieties of donburi, it will be time to enjoy a delicious bowl for yourself! You’ll find donburi options on the menus of Japanese establishments across the city, and even a few restaurants that specialize in the dish. Get out there and find your favourite!


 

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Kaisen don

This is one of several sushi-inspired variations on the classic donburi that appeals to those who find the usual versions of the dish to be a little heavy. This variation has sashimi placed on normal steamed rice and shouldn’t be confused with chirashi, which has a similar topping but is made with sushi rice.

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Poke don

If you’re up on your culinary trends, you’re probably well acquainted with the poke bowl. Though poke originated in Hawaii as a kind of raw fish salad, the popularized poke bowl combines sashimi-grade fish with rice in a way very similar to kaisen don. Though not technically Japanese, it definitely seems Japan-inspired!

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Ten don

If I could take one type of donburi with me to a desert island, it would be ten don: an assortment of tempura on rice. A lot of donburi winds up being an excuse to pad out your favourite Japanese food into a full meal, and I’d happily eat tempura morning, noon and night for the rest of my life!

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Oyako don

I feel like oyako don is one of the cruellest jokes in Japanese cuisine. Translated directly, the name means “parent and child,” which sounds like a pretty heartwarming moniker for this comforting dish—until I tell you it’s made from chicken and egg. Savage. But also delicious!

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Roast beef don

The name pretty much says it all as this dish combines roast beef and rice. However, this is not the roast beef you’d expect to find on sandwiches. It’s generally of a higher quality and could be more accurately described as “steak don.” This is definitely the bowl for meat lovers!

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Gyu don

This is another don fan favourite, alongside oyako don and ten don. This time we’re adding beef, onions and eggs to the mix—a mix so popular that it’s common to find restaurants in Japan specializing purely in gyu don, and even some here in Toronto!

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Una don

Did I mention padding your favourite Japanese food into a meal by tossing it on a bowl of rice? Una don does just that with another of my favourites: barbecued eel (unagi). If you haven’t yet warmed to the idea of eating eel, you should really give una don a try. You won’t regret it!