Donburi - rice bowl dish

1-17-10 Nihonbashi-Ningyocho, Chuo-ku, 103-0013 Tokyo
Tel: 03-3668-7651
Opening hour: 11:30-13:00 & 17:00-22:00 (Mon-Fr)
11:30-13:00 & 16:00-21:00 (Sat)

Ganso Oyako-don

Tamahide is always crowded.
1-13-2 Nihonbashi-Kakigaracho, Chuo-ku, 103-0014 Tokyo
Tel: 03-3666-0639
Opening hour: 11:00-13:30 & 17:00-21:00 (Mon-Fr)


Ten-oto has a building from the Showa period.


2-8-9 Nihonbashi-Kakigaracho, Chuo-ku, 103-0014 Tokyo
Tel: 03-3666-0639
Opening hour: 11:00-14:00 & 17:30-21:00 (Mon-Sat)

Una-tomi is located in a narrow alley behind Suitengu shrine.

Home made Fukagawa-donburi

Cherry clams are cooked together with leak and ginger.
Fine black strips are "nori" (laver).
I continue my expedition to Ningyo-cho - check also the article on Sasashin- , because Ningyo-cho is indeed a very interesting place for me. It was the amusement center in the Edo era. All three kabuki theaters existed in the present Ningyo-cho area before the great fire in 1841. While Nihonbashi was the center of commercial life and people needed a formal life style, Ningyo-cho was its backyard where people could relax and enjoy life. Though many old buildings were torn down and tradition was destroyed, we can still glimpse the remains of Edo life in Ningyo-cho.

It is very natural that Ningyo-cho created a new and popular eating style "donburi". "Donburi" is a large size ceramic bowl and "donburi meshi" refers to a bowl of rice with different types of topping. Rice with topping is a very primitive way of eating and known to virtually all nations in Asia. Bibimbap in Korea and Chicken rice in Singapore are good examples.

While I was living in China, I observed that for their lunch Chinese workers usually eat cooked rice with "chop suey" as topping. They always carry an aluminum lunch box with them and have it filled with a ration of rice and topping at lunch time. Not only workers. When Chinese people have their meal, they usually put meat, fish, vegetable and whatsoever on their small bowl of rice and add some sauces.

The mixture of rice and sauce surely creates better flavour and Japanese people also do this sometimes. But, it is against good table manners and mothers keep telling their children not to pour miso soup over rice! Therefore when "donburi meshi" was to be accepted by society as a commercial product, they needed reasoned argumentation to run counter to the etiquette. The keyword was "busy".

There were many busy people in Nihonbashi and they needed to eat as quickly as possible, but did not want to sacrifice good taste. It was in the Tempo period (1804-1814) when Imasuke Okubo, a promoter of Kabuki Theater, asked Onoya, his favorite eel restaurant, to put the cooked eel on rice, so that the eel would not go cold. The first donburi meshi "una-don" (Eel bowl) was thus invented as delivery food and won the wide support of busy people.

Toku made oyako-don.
Once an idea was born and accepted, it was very natural that other foods also started to take the style of "donburi meshi". The most popular example of "donburi meshi" is "oyako-don". "Oyako-don" (chicken and egg bowl) was also invented in Ningyo-cho. Toku, wife of the fifth-generation owner of Tamahide restaurant, got a hint from her clients and made a sort of omelet using the leftover-soup of the restaurant's main course and put it on rice. She commercialized "oyako-don" in 1891 and oyako-don fully met the needs and tastes of busy dealers in the fish market and stock exchange in the nearby Nihonbashi and Kabuto-cho. We call tasty but cheap popular foods "B class gourmet food" and donburi-meshi represents a big part of it. There are good "B class gourmet" restaurants in Ningyo-cho. I would like to recommend among others the following.

Tamahide opened in 1760 and as I mentioned above was the original restaurant for oyako-don. Tamahide is now an established restaurant and at lunch time there are always many guests standing in a long queue and waiting for their turn to eat the famous oyako-don. I usually avoid the hardship of waiting for a long time and eat in Tamahide only when the weather is extremely bad and the queue is short.

You are required to buy a ticket before you are guided to your place. Sharing a table with other guests is a matter of course. But, the service staff are friendly and efficient and you will certainly be satisfied with their food. You can try here the original oyako-don "Ganso oyako-don" (1,300 yen with a cup of chicken soup and cucumber pickles). Now "oyako-don" usually uses leek or onion,

Ten-oto is also a family business.
but the original oyako-don only uses soup, chicken meat and egg and seasons with soy sauce and sweet sake.

Ten-oto opened in 1930 and has a good atmosphere and traditional taste. There are four different grades of ten-don. The one on the photo is the second cheapest (1,500 yen) and has tempuras with various ingredients including a big prawn. The present owner complains on his personal web page, that most guests order "ten-don", though his restaurant is not just a ten-don restaurant but a tempura restaurant. The restaurant is loyal to the tradition of Tokyo and their sauce for ten-don is very dark.

Suitengu is believed to save people in marine disaster and delivery of baby.
I like their building and interior that remind me of a traditional interior.

Una-Tomi is, compared to the restaurants mentioned above, quite new and located a bit further from the center of Ningyo-cho and behind the Suitengu shrine. However, this family-run restaurant offers first class eel dishes. In particular their lunch time menu is not only rich in quality and quantity but also economical. The eel bowl is acompanied with a slice of "u-maki" (omelet with eel). An eel liver soup, a grated yam soup, a portion of cooked vegetable and a portion of pickles are served together with eel bowl and a small cup of coffee is served at the end of the meal. For such a delight, we only have to pay 1,500 yen (16 $).

This is the lunch menu of Una-Tomi. A white envelope on this side of the tray covers chopsticks.
Finally, I add a photo of my homemade "fukagawa donburi". The topping is cherry clams seasoned with miso based soup. Fukagawa is on the left bank of Sumida River which flows southwards in the east of Ningyo-cho and the nearby shore was once rich in clams. Fukagawa donburi was the daily food of clam fishermen.

1-1-10 Shishido, 414-0004 Ito
Tel: 0557-36-2926
Opening hour: 11:30-14:00 & 17:30-23:30
(Wednesdays closed)

Kaisen donburi

Umehara is in the Yunohana street of Ito.

More than two years have passed since I wrote the original part of this article and I want to add a few more informations about "donburi" in general.

The text above concentrated more or less on Ningyocho, where commercialization of "donburi" might have started. However, donburi is nowadays so popular in Japan, I want to add some more examples. The first example is the "kaisen donburi" I ate in Ito, Izu. "Kaisen" means fresh seafood and "kaisen donburi" is a bowl of rice with raw fish slices and other seafood as topping. Usually "kaisen donburi" uses simpliy cooked rice. But, in some restaurants "sushi rice" - cooked rice seasoned with vinegar, mirin and salt - is used and in others guests can choose between ordinary rice and sushi rice.

(*)"Maguro donburi" (Tuna bowl) is a kind of "kaisen donburi", but uses only sliced tuna fish meat. (See the article on Kanno.)

Umehara is an ordinary izakaya cum Japanese restaurant in the main street of Ito. Different from many restaurants in the central area of Ito, Umehara is not a restaurant mainly targeting tourists who might come only once and will never be repeaters. Rather local people come here for drinking and communication. The fassade of the restaurant is not striking and I overlooked it for years. I happened to enter it the other day and found that their fishes are fresh and food preparation is professional. The price for this kaisen donburi was 1,200, which I think is not expensive in light of the quality of fish. All fishes were landed at Ito and therefore there are neither salmon roes nor tuna fish, but only fishes from the neighboring sea. I like their style.

By the way, for most "donburi" menu there are "juu" variations. "Juu" means "juubako", which is a traditional wooden lunch box colored with urushi lacquer. There are "una don" as well as "una juu" or "katsu don" as well as "katsu juu". Only in case of "kaisen donburi" the expensive variation is called "chirashi zushi". In all cases, ingredients are the same and only their prices are diffrerent. "Juu" is more expensive than "don" !! "Juubako" were traditionally used in more decent circumstances than "donburi" and there are price differences accordingly.

 2009.2.22, Add.2011.6.22