Donburi are one dish rice bowls. Large servings of rice topped with seafood, meat, or vegetables. Here are some of my favorite places to go for donburi in Tokyo. This article originally appeared in Metropolis magazine.
The photo above was a donburi that Shinji made with maguro (tuna) marinated in soy sauce, mirin, and sake and garnished with tamagoyaki.
Being single, I am harassed (yes, harassed) by my Japanese relatives on my marital status. So recently I picked up Rachel Greenwald’s book Find a Husband After 35 and started putting some of her suggestions into practice: Wear brighter clothes, carry a book that could be a conversation starter, and go out for lunch. Easy enough! I definitely wasn’t making any love connections at the company dining hall. I also had a topic to cover for Metropolis, so I turned lunch into a mission to find Tokyo’s finest donburi (simple rice bowls with toppings) and to find a husband, or at the very least a date.
My first meal was at Tenya, a fast-food tempura shop. Tenya fries your tempura after you have placed your order, quickly dips it in a savory and sweet soy sauce and serves it over a large bowl of steaming rice. Sitting elbow-to-elbow with Japanese salarymen, I tried to smile at a few of them but everyone was understandably engrossed in their food.
Bibimpa is a Korean chain that does donburi-style rice dishes. The ishiyaki stone bowls are heated to an incredibly high temperature, then filled with rice and covered with goodies. The rice in the ishiyaki gets a lovely crunchy crust to it. Toppings include spicy kimchi, beef, pork, vegetables, or my favorite, mentaiko and cheese. I was so focused on my meal I forgot to flirt.
My day off was devoted to Tsukiji; what better husband than a fishmonger? Breakfast was at Tsukiji Donburi Ichiba for their sutekidon: tender tuna cheek quickly sauteed with salt, pepper and soy sauce, and served over rice with lettuce, garnished with julienned green onions. The man sitting next to me asked me to pass the soy sauce, which I did, trying to play it cool; it was too early in the morning to be giving out my phone number.
After staking out the market all morning and still without a date, I skipped the long lines at Daiwa Sushi and headed a few shops along to Tenfusa to lunch on their tempura-style anagodon: lacy batter dressed over melting, tender eel. I tried to wink at the waiter when he brought my water, but no reply, not even a smile.
Craving a healthy donburi? Uoya in Yurakucho has an omazedon of natto, maguro, yamaimo (mountain potato), squid, okra and egg yolk. The ingredients are mixed in a bowl until it becomes a runny, gooey mass, then poured over a bowl of rice. There is simply no dignified way to eat this kind of food so, listening to the salarymen slurp it up like ramen, I decide to finish my bowl quietly and run.
Getting desperate, I headed over to my favorite local sushi shop for their chirashi zushi: sushi rice in a wide bowl covered with tuna, scallop, squid and ikura (salmon roe) with vegetables to round it out. I ask about Takuya, the only single guy there. He pokes his head out from the back kitchen to announce, in a round-about Japanese way, that he has been promoted and will be busy out back. I can take a hint.
After my unfruitful outing, I started exploring making donburi at home. Not only is it wickedly easy, cleaning-up is a snap. The simplest version is raw tuna marinated in a little soy sauce and garnished with wasabi, with other options being ikura or uni (sea urchin). Even gyudon (beef over rice, as made famous by Yoshinoya) can be whipped together in minutes: Saute thinly sliced beef with onions in a bit of oil, and seasoned with salt, pepper and a dash of soy sauce for aroma. Other popular varieties include oyakodon (chicken and egg) and katsudon (tonkatsu and egg), although I don’t really care for the runny eggs on rice.
Nor, truth be told, can I imagine my husband will be a Japanese salaryman. Rachel’s book says that if you don’t find Mr. Right soon, change your habits. Anyone know where I can get a good Italian pizza?
Tsukiji Donburi Ichiba
4-9-5 Tsukiji, Chuo-ku. Tel: 03-3541-8978.
5-2-1 Tsukiji, Chuo-ku. Tel: 03-3547-6766.
2-1-21 Yurakucho, Chiyoda-ku. Tel: 03-3581-5040.