7 Rules for a Better Rice Bowl

Overhead view of beef rice bowl with sauteed spinach and fried garlic

[Photographs: Vicky Wasik]

It may sound silly to put it this way, but before grain bowls became a thing, grain bowls were already a thing. Wherever people cooked whole grains and ate them, they likely put them in a bowl and put tasty stuff on top, both because it was delicious and because it was convenient. (Yes, even in America, where grain bowls are currently a "thing"!)

But bowls of rice with stuff thrown on top are only delicious if you give them enough thought and consideration. And while there are exceptions to any set of rules, I generally find that successful rice bowls almost always have certain elements in common, so I wanted to share a set of guidelines that I've relied upon to make great rice bowls with whatever I happen to have on hand. I've also created a few recipes for quick, easy-to-assemble meals that show how to put those guidelines into practice.

While lessons can be learned from rice bowls around the world, I've taken most of my cues Japan's long tradition of meals-in-a-bowl-with-grains, which typically fall under the category of donburi. The term donburi is used both to mean a rice-bowl meal and the bowl in which a rice-bowl meal is served—wider and deeper than your standard-issue Japanese rice bowl, since it needs enough extra volume to accommodate both the rice and the non-rice portion of the meal. You're likely already familiar with some of the more famous donburi, like gyudon, katsudon, and oyakodon (which mean, respectively, "beef bowl," "cutlet bowl," and, disturbingly, "mother and child bowl"), but even if you aren't, the appeal of putting tasty stuff on top of rice and eating it all out of one round-bottomed container probably isn't lost on you. Again, it's convenient and, if everything is prepared well, delicious.

Selection of Japanese pantry products that are helpful in building rice bowls, including hijiki (a dried seaweed), aonori (a dried seaweed), pickled ginger, pickled mustard greens, shredded nori, and soy sauce

This guide and the accompanying recipes skew Japanese (because I'm skewed Japanese!), but there isn't really any reason to limit yourself to ingredients out of the Japanese pantry. That being said, Japanese grocery stores, like Korean, Chinese, and other Asian-cuisine-focused grocery stores, are stocked with a wide variety of prepared food items designed to be eaten with rice. They can be a particularly valuable resource for small and tasty staples that can round out and diversify whatever you decided to put on top of your rice. Beyond that, you can also shop elsewhere (including online) for most, if not all, of the varied prepared products from across the world that are good on rice.

The Rules of the Rice-Bowl Road

Rule 1: The Rice Rules

Steam escaping from open lid of a rice cooker

First and foremost, a rice bowl is all about the rice. Much as with a Japanese breakfast, the rice makes up the bulk of the meal, and everything in the bowl that isn't rice is meant to be eaten with it. This means that you want a good amount of rice in the bowl—about a cup and a half of cooked rice per serving—and it also means that you want to cook the rice well (take a look at my rice cooker review, which is the easiest way to get consistently great rice with no effort).

Rule 2: Limit Topping Portions but Season Them Well

Second, since the rice is the star, you don't want to overload it with a mountain of toppings. Still, the food that you do add needs to be seasoned aggressively enough to compensate for the rice's relative blandness. Whereas a typical American portion of something like, say, a steak, weighs about eight ounces, you'll want to use only about half that for a rice bowl, and you'll want to find ways to flavor it beyond salting the steak's surface alone. A proper showering of salt may be all a seared steak needs, but that's not going to cut it on a mound of plain rice.

Rule 3: Chop, Chop, Chop

Slicing blanched green beans into thin rounds.

Everything on top of the rice should be cut into bite-size pieces. Whether you plan on eating your rice bowl with a spoon, fork, or chopsticks, you don't want large slabs of meat or vegetables that will require any kind of cutting.

Rule 4: Texture and Flavor Variety Are Key

Every rice bowl needs to be varied in both texture and flavor. Katsudon (fried pork cutlet with egg over rice) is a great example: you have chewy meat encased in a highly seasoned fried breadcrumb exterior, the tender and silky egg, strands of just-cooked onion that still have a remnant of bite, all of it dressed with a sauce that is both sweet and savory. And, for a final, optional bit of texture/flavor contrast, you can add some crisp pickled vegetables, like pickled ginger strips.

In general, think about combining ingredients that can add the following:

  • Heft: This will likely be the featured player in your rice bowl, whether it's a portion of meat, cubes of tofu, or a hearty vegetable that can take center stage, like eggplant.
  • Umami: Many ingredients can add savory depth to your rice bowl. Meat automatically will, especially if you brown it well and make a sauce from it. Beyond that, seaweed, mushrooms, and fermented foods (anything from miso and soy sauce to lacto-fermented pickles and funky shrimp paste) will deliver a wallop of satisfying flavor.
  • Acidity: Pickles, whether vinegar-based or fermented, are one of your key players here, but even a squeeze of lemon juice can do the trick.
  • Heat: Fresh chilies, chili pastes, chili flakes and powders all work for adding anywhere from a subtle background warmth to an all-out fiery assault. It's up to you how far you want to go. Horseradish, wasabi, and mustard are also great choices, delivering that nose-burning sensation we all love with a grimace.
  • Freshness: Thinly sliced scallions, fresh herbs, finely minced raw vegetables, even a dose of raw minced ginger or garlic can bring a breath or blast of freshness to the bowl.

Rule 5: Control Your Sauce

A flavorful sauce is almost always needed in a rice bowl: It coats your toppings and seeps down into the rice, uniting the two. But you don't want your rice swimming in it. This is both a flavor and a texture issue because too much wet sauce means you'll end up with overly seasoned, soupy rice. One good trick for ensuring your sauce doesn't pool in the bottom of the bowl, aside from using an appropriate amount, is to employ some kind of thickener, like cornstarch. When it's more viscous, the sauce will cling to the toppings more and glaze the top layer of rice, but it won't run down and saturate everything.

Rule 6: Quick and Easy Are the Name of the Rice-Bowl Game

A rice bowl has to be quick and easy to put together. I suppose it doesn't have to be, but part of a rice bowl's appeal as a home-cooked meal is that it's not going to be a heavy lift, whether you're making it for lunch or you're doing it for a weeknight dinner. This is where having a store of tasty stuff in your pantry really helps, but it's also why rice bowls are an ideal way to use up leftovers. Have some broiled eggplant lying around? Overstocked on pickles? Or maybe you've got a leftover stir-fry or some mapo tofu from the takeout spot. All of these things can be used to make a very satisfying rice bowl in no time.

Rule 7: Construct Consciously

Even with all the other elements in place, true rice-bowl success requires considered construction. Exactly how this works depends on the ingredients, but in general, it's worth thinking about which ingredients you want to ensure get all over the rice so that they can mix in evenly as you eat and which ones you don't. That frequently means distributing very small ingredients like shredded nori or very finely minced pickles all over the rice, and spooning a bit of sauce (but not too much) all over. Larger pieces of vegetable and protein can be piled on more artfully and then glazed with a bit more sauce.

Anything particularly strong-flavored or pungent, like pickled ginger or hot mustard, is often best left in a small, contained clump so that the diner can choose exactly how much to get in each bite.

Case Studies in Rice-Bowls

These rules are all well and good, but what might they look like in reality? Let's look at a few recipes I've created to put those guidelines to work.

How to Make a Beef (or Chicken) Rice Bowl

Overhead view of chicken donburi

This recipe is a riff on something my mother used to do. Growing up, we didn't have access to the thinly sliced meat required to make gyudon, so she came up with a different kind of Japanese beef rice bowl, one that used whatever steak cuts we could get. I've since found that it is perfectly suited for those sad, thin boneless rib-eye steaks you find in supermarkets all over, the ones that are too thin to properly sear before overcooking. With a little assistance from mayonnaise (for browning) and the quick pan sauce you whip up at the end, the steak, cooked medium, is still very tasty. And while the beef is ostensibly the main player in this bowl (other than the rice, that is), it's actually the combination of the fried garlic nubbins, shredded nori, sauce, and rice that makes the dish.

I decided to streamline the process of cooking the garlic, the steak, and the accompanying spinach by frying the garlic first, then using the garlic-infused oil to sauté the spinach. After wiping out the pan (no need to wash), I mayo up one side of the steaks and cook them unilaterally—mostly on that mayo side, to get a nice brown crust and then just long enough on the other side to finish it off. Then I build a very simple pan sauce using sake, soy sauce, dashi (although you can use chicken stock or even water), and mirin, along with a little bit of cornstarch slurry to thicken it up.

All of that is pretty straightforward as far as cooking goes. But one of the key elements of a good rice bowl is Rule #7 from above: the way you construct it once everything's prepared.

Collage showing process of building donburi

First, in goes the rice. You want to create a nice, flat plane upon which you can perch all the disparate toppings. Then, I deviate a little from the way my mother used to make this bowl by scattering shredded nori directly over the rice. While shredded nori makes an attractive garnish, it actually contributes a lot of flavor to the dish, particularly when it's combined with the sauce. Placing the nori directly on the rice means it will get doused with the sauce and ensures even distribution of the nori flavor. (You can purchase shredded nori, called kizami nori in specialty Japanese stores or online, but you can also shred sheets of nori yourself using a pair of scissors and some artful stacking of nori sheets).

Then, spoon some of the sauce over the nori and rice—not too much. Next add the toppings: the steak, which you spoon more sauce over, the spinach, a pile of those delicious garlic nubbins, and then a small mound of pickled ginger and a final sprinkling of sliced green onions.

This recipe works equally well with other cuts of steak (although cooking times will vary) as well as with, say, a pork chop. It also works well with chicken breasts and de-boned legs, but I wrote up a separate recipe for those, as the cooking time is drastically different. Because chicken breasts and legs are irregularly shaped, I recommend using a cooking weight to ensure they cook evenly in the pan.

How to Make a Vegetarian Rice Bowl

Overhead view of eggplant donburi (rice bowl)

I wanted to present both a non-vegetarian and a vegetarian option since the considerations can be slightly different. Meats and proteins deliver an easy boost of flavor along with pan drippings that can help build a more flavorful pan sauce. Vegetables, on the other hand, deliver a wider variety of textures.

There were a million ways I could have gone with this one, but I settled on a stewed eggplant rice bowl with yasai itame, which essentially means stir-fried vegetables along with a few quick, pressed-cucumber pickles.

To start, you'll have to make the pickles: Sliced cucumbers get tossed in a pickle press along with salt, sugar, rice vinegar, and sesame oil. If you don't have a pickle press (understandable, but they are very, very useful), you can toss the ingredients into a zip-top bag; try your best to remove as much air as possible, then sandwich the bag between two quarter-sheet pans and set a few weights on top. In the time it takes to put together everything else in the bowl (about thirty minutes), the cucumbers should be just barely pickled, still crunchy but also a little acidic from the brief time with the vinegar.

Once the pickles are squared away, I pour about a cup and a quarter of hot water over dried shiitake mushrooms, and while they rehydrate, I prep the rest of the meal. Cubes of eggplant go in the microwave on a plate and steam for about seven to eight minutes on high power, until they're very, very soft.

After that, the rest of the cooking takes just a couple of minutes. Slices of the rehydrated mushrooms are stir-fried in a cast iron pan along with garlic, a little Thai bird chili for heat (optional), bean sprouts, and red pepper, then set aside. In the same pan, a lot of ginger and some garlic get fried in oil, then the mushroom rehydrating liquid, miso, soy sauce, rice vinegar, mirin, and sugar are added to the pan and brought to a boil. Add the steamed eggplant and simmer until it has absorbed some of the sauce, and the sauce has thickened somewhat. After that, all you need to do then is dress the stir-fried vegetables with a little vinegar and sesame oil and build the bowl.

Just as with the meat rice bowl, you start with a flat base of rice, sprinkled with shredded nori. Then you pile up the stir-fried vegetables on one side and the eggplant and its sauce on the other, and nestle a handful of the quick-pickled cucumbers. That alone would give you a decent rice bowl, but here's where you can really get an assist from some pantry staples. To give the eggplant a little added umami depth and aroma, I sprinkle aonori, a dried green laver or seaweed over it. Also, in the bowl pictured, I added a pile of takanazuke, or Japanese pickled mustard greens. You can add any kind of pickle you'd like, whether it's kimchi, pickled ginger, or Chinese pickled mustard greens—anything fermented and funky would be a welcome addition.

In the end, the key to any rice bowl is to provide enough variation in the bowl that it remains interesting from the first bite to the last.