If you’re reading this, I’m guessing you fall into one of two camps: 1) Totally excited for a vegan alternative to this unsustainable eco-trainwreck 2) Totally horrified and asking “why…?”. To be honest, I had some mixed feelings when a client asked me to come up with a vegan alternative for unagi. As far as fish goes, this is kind of like asking for a vegan roast chicken or porterhouse steak.
A quick search confirmed my fears with uninspiring alternatives running the gamut from mashed potatoes to seitan. Most bear little resemblance to freshwater eel, and I can only imagine how far off the taste and texture is.
In Japan we often char-grill eggplant, which when peeled and split looks a bit like a fish fillet, a similarity I’ve noticed on more than one occasion. The thing is, eggplant roasted in this way is creamier than anything else, which is not even close to the flaky texture of cooked fish. This does, however, work pretty well when you’re trying to imitate the texture of freshwater eel. There are the edible pin bones in unagi of course, but let’s be honest, those are more of an unavoidable nuisance than a desirable texture.
Curiosity piqued, I tried grilling some Japanese eggplant until the skin was thoroughly charred. After peeling and splitting it, each eggplant formed two plump fillets with a creamy texture and smoky flavor: the perfect foil for brushing a thick coat of kabayaki sauce on. By sticking nori on one side of the eggplant, it not only adds an aquatic flavor to the vegetable, but also doubles as the black skin for our unagi.
While I’m not going to lie to you and say it tastes exactly like unagi, it’s probably about as close as you’re going to get, short of some factory engineered frankenprotein. The most important thing is that whether you’re vegan or not, this eggplant donburi is pretty darn tasty. So whether you want to call it vegan “unagi” or a roasted eggplant donburi, this is a delicious simple meal that comes together in less time than it takes to cook a bowl of rice.
Roasted Eggplant Donburi
- 14 ounces (400 grams) Japanese eggplant
- 2 tablespoons evaporated cane juice
- 2 tablespoons soy sauce
- 2 tablespoons mirin
- 2 tablespoons sake
- 1 full sheet nori
- cooked brown rice
- Wash the eggplant, and poke a few holes in it with a fork to keep it from exploding. To get the skin off, you need to roast it at a high temperature (like you would a bell pepper). You can either do this in a broiler with the rack in the top position, turning the eggplant every few minutes until the skin is charred, or you can grill the eggplant, turning every few minutes.
- Once the eggplant is cooked through and the skin is charred, remove it from the oven/grill and let it cool until you can handle it.
- While you're waiting for it to cool, make the kabayaki sauce by putting the evaporated cane juice, soy sauce, mirin and sake in a pot and boiling over high heat until the mixture forms large shiny bubbles. Be careful not to let this boil over. Turn off the heat and set aside.
- Peel the skin of the eggplant, starting from the tip and peeling towards the stem. Cut the stem off.
- If you feel around the peeled eggplant, you should find a section where your finger will easily slips inside. Split the eggplant by running your finger up and down the length of the eggplant and splay it out flat. If there are any visible clusters of seeds, carefully remove them with a paring knife, but don't worry about getting them all or you won't have anything left to eat.
- Place the filleted eggplant between a few layers of paper towels and gently press to remove any excess water.
- Trim the nori to fit onto each piece of eggplant and stick to the the seed side of the eggplant.
- Flip the eggplant over and baste with a generous coat of kabayaki sauce.
- Fill four bowls with cooked rice and drizzle the remaining sauce onto the rice. Lay an eggplant on each bowl of rice and serve.
Yield: 4 bowls
Marc Matsumoto is a culinary consultant and recipe repairman who shares his passion for good food through his website norecipes.com. For Marc, food is a life long journey of exploration, discovery and experimentation and he shares his escapades through his blog in the hopes that he inspires others to find their own culinary adventures. Marc’s been featured in the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and USA Today, and has made multiple appearances on NPR and the Food Network.