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The Comfort Bowl

August 29, 2016

Donburi: the Traditional Fast Food

Donburi, the one-bowl meal of rice and a savory topping, is one of Japan's best-loved, homegrown convenience foods. It's easy to prepare and to eat – the perfect solution for a leisurely at-home dinner or lunch on the run.

Food books and other media often portray Japanese cuisine as exquisitely presented yet challenging to make. And in many cases, it is. But Japanese food can also be fast, robust and friendly.

The donburi is a classic comfort-food dish. It's a one-bowl meal, made for a single diner. Comprising a savory topping placed on a large helping of rice, it is roughly the equivalent of the hearty Western sandwich or hamburger. It's a meal for when you're on the go, or want something high-energy – with plenty of starch and protein – that requires little effort to prepare.

Different donburi are named after their toppings. Gyudon is “beef bowl” (“gyu” means beef; “don” is short for donburi, or bowl). Oyakodon means “parent and child bowl” – it's a play on words, since the topping is chicken and egg.

Restaurants that serve donburi range from typical neighborhood eateries to the major gyudon chains. Many local restaurants such as soba noodle stores serve donburi as a set meal, together with cold or hot noodles and pickles.

Of course, just as important as the donburi topping is the rice. Short-grained rice is essential, because it's moist and sweet. Personal tastes vary, but most chefs seem to aim to cook rice a little al-dente, hard on the outside, with the grains separating easily and not at all gluggy or clinging together.

Apart from giving bulk to the dish, the rice provides a contrasting texture and also carries the sauce. When you eat donburi, you may wish to mix the topping and sauce throughout the entire bowl, although many people prefer to leave some white rice at the bottom, to eat on its own. Donburi is often served with a small soup, either a clear dashi or a broth of miso – fermented soybean paste.

A well-made donburi is a heavenly experience. The flavorsome topping will strike just the right balance with the starch, while the sauce richly coats the warm rice so that you feel the sensation of enjoying every grain.

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