Citizens! There is an unequivocal and incontrovertible fact that is true across all cultures, all people and even across species: fried food is totally irresistible and few have mastered the subtle intricacies of deep frying better than the Japanese! Tempura is by far the most common food known to gaijin (foreigners) of this type, and the sweet irony is that this style of cooking did not see its genesis in Nihon – no, it is actually an early example of East/West fusion, by way of the Portuguese of all people! Buckle up, members of TFD Nation – this is going to be one wild historic ride through the annals of gastronomic anthropology!
Tempura (天ぷら or 天麩羅) is a typical Japanese dish usually consisting of seafood, meat and vegetables that have been battered and deep fried. The dish was introduced by Iberians in Nagasaki through the fritter-cooking techniques in the 16th century. The name ‘tempura’ may originate from the Spanish ‘Témporas’ or from the Portuguese ‘Têmporas’, which refer to the Ember Days, during which no meat is consumed, or from the Portuguese word tempêro, meaning ‘seasoning’. FYI – Westerners continually mispronounce this style of cuisine as tem-POO-rah when it is in fact properly pronounced as ‘temp-rah’ in Japanese. For the next time you order it in a Japanese restaurant…you’re welcome!
In tempura, a light batter is made of iced water, eggs, and soft wheat flour (cake, pastry or all-purpose flour). Sometimes baking soda or baking powder is added to make the fritter light. Using sparkling water in the place of plain water enables a similar effect.
Tempura batter is traditionally mixed in small batches using chopsticks for only a few seconds, leaving lumps in the mixture that, along with the cold batter temperature, result in the unique fluffy and crisp tempura structure when cooked. The batter is often kept cold by adding ice, or by placing the bowl inside a larger bowl with ice in it. Over-mixing the batter will result in activation of wheat gluten, which causes the flour mixture to become soft and dough-like when fried.
Specially formulated tempura flour is available in supermarkets. This is generally light (low-gluten) flour, and occasionally contains leaveners such as baking powder. Never fear, Citizens – it’s easy enough to make on your own and it definitely results in a superior product!
Please note that tempura does not use breadcrumbs (panko) in the coating. Deep-fried foods which are coated with breadcrumbs are called furai, Japanese-invented Western-style deep fried foods, such as tonkatsu or ebi furai (fried prawn). No seasonings or salt are added to the batter, or to the ingredients, except for some recipes recommending to rinse seafoods in salt water before preparation (TFD ALWAYS does this for any seafood, as it helps improve the texture).
To cook tempura, thin slices or strips of vegetables or seafood are dipped in the batter, then briefly deep-fried in hot oil. Vegetable or canola oil are the most common; however, tempura was traditionally cooked using sesame oil.
Many specialty shops still use sesame oil or tea seed oil, and it is thought certain compounds in these oils help to produce light, crispier batter. The finished fry is pale whiteish, thin and fluffy, yet crunchy. The bits of batter (known as tenkasu) are scooped out between batches of tempura, so they do not burn and leave a bad flavor in the oil. A small mesh scoop (ami jakushi) is used for this purpose. Tenkasu are often reserved as ingredients in other dishes or as a topping.
Cooked bits of tempura are either eaten with dipping sauce, salted without sauce, or used to assemble other dishes. Tempura is commonly served with grated daikon and eaten hot immediately after frying. In Japan, it is often found in bowls of soba or udon soup often in the form of a shrimp, shiso leaf, or fritter. The most common sauce is tentsuyu sauce (roughly three parts dashi, one part mirin, and one part shōyu). Alternatively, tempura may be sprinkled with sea salt before eating. Mixtures of powdered green tea and salt or yuzu and salt are also used.
Tempura is also used in combination with other foods. When served over soba (buckwheat noodles), it is called tempura soba or tensoba. Tempura is also served as a donburi dish where tempura shrimp and vegetables are served over steamed rice in a bowl (tendon) and on top of udon soup (tempura udon). Kakiage is a type of tempura made with mixed vegetable strips, such as onion, carrot, and burdock, and sometimes including shrimp or squid, which are deep fried as small round fritters.
Before contact with the West, Japanese deep-fried food was either simply fried without breading or batter, or fried with rice flour. However, toward the end of the 16th century, fritter-cooking with a batter of flour and eggs was acquired in Nagasaki from Iberian missionaries.
It was a way to fulfill the fasting and abstinence rules for Catholics surrounding the quarterly ember days (Spanish: Témporas). Spanish, one of the Neo-Latin languages, inherited Témpora from the Latin Tempora. In those early days, tempura was deep-fried in lard with a batter of flour, water, eggs, and salt; unlike today, it was eaten without dipping sauce. It is in fact believed the ancestor of modern tempura was the Portuguese dish of peixinhos da horta.
In the early 17th century, around the Tokyo Bay area, tempura ingredients and preparation underwent a remarkable change as the Yatai (food cart) culture gained popularity. Making the best use of fresh seafood while preserving its delicate taste, tempura used only flour, eggs and water as ingredients and the batter was not flavored.
As the batter was mixed minimally in cold water, it avoided the dough-like stickiness caused by the activation of wheat gluten, resulting in the crispy texture which is now characteristic of tempura. It became customary to dip tempura quickly in a sauce mixed with grated daikon just before eating it.
Today in Japan the mainstream of tempura recipes originate from “Tokyo style (Edo style)” tempura, which was invented at the food stalls along the riverside fish market in the Edo period. The main reason tempura became popular was the abundance of seafood. In addition, as oil extraction techniques advanced, cooking oil became cheaper.
Serving of deep-fried food indoors was prohibited during Edo because tempura oil was a fire hazard in Japanese building, which were made of paper and wood. For that reason, tempura gained popularity as fast food eaten at outdoor food stalls. It was skewered and eaten with a dipping sauce.
The modern tempura recipe was first published in 1671 in the cook book called 料理献立抄. After the Meiji period, tempura was no longer considered a fast food item but instead developed as a high-class cuisine.
The term ‘tempura’ is thought to have gained popularity in southern Japan; it became widely used to refer to any sort of food prepared using hot oil, including some already existing Japanese foods. Today, and particularly in western Japan, the word ‘tempura”‘ is also commonly used to refer to satsuma-age, fried surimi fish cake which is made without batter.
In Japan, restaurants specializing in tempura are called tenpura-ya. Many restaurants offer tempura as part of a set meal or a bento (lunch box), and it is also a popular ingredient in take-out or convenience store bento boxes. The ingredients and styles of cooking and serving tempura vary greatly through the country, with importance being placed on using fresh, seasonal ingredients.
With the history now officially shared, let us discuss the recipe at hand!
It will probably surprise you that tempura and its accompanying dipping sauce is actually not that difficult to make nor does it use many different ingredients – but that means the ingredients you DO use had better be ultimate-quality!
For the flour, you MUST use a low-protein version such as bread, pastry or cake flour to make the coating properly crispy (A/P flour will absorb the oil and be heavy – don’t use it!). This flour is by far the best to use for this recipe – I can’t recommend it strongly enough and since it is a recreation of flour as it was in the 19th century, you’re guaranteed to get the results the Japanese of that period knew and loved!
Surprisingly, the real secret to proper tempura may in fact be the cooking oil you choose – or to be truly authentic, the cooking oil BLEND you choose! All the finest tempura restaurants use proprietary blends of cooking oil to provide the ideal balance of flavor, aroma and heat breakdown-resistance. I use My own unique blend of corn oil, tea seed oil, sesame oil and peanut oil – buy the unusual oils at the links.
It is also imperative to keep the coating ingredients ICE-COLD – ideally, store the flour in the freezer overnight, and keep the mixed coating in a bowl suspended in a second, larger bowl filled with ice. Trust me – keep it cold!
When mixing, remember that in a seemingly paradoxical instruction to mix BADLY because bad mixing means the gluten in the flour (which toughens the coating) isn’t activated (the cold also keeps gluten from forming). You absolutely want a ring of flour around the inside of the bowl and a lumpy batter. If you over-mix it past this point, your coating will be heavy and sodden with grease – the exact OPPOSITE of what you want! Use a chopstick to stir it in several ‘figure-8’s’ – that will do the trick!
Your proteins and vegetables MUST be top-quality – organic veggies, wild seafood as fresh as you can get it, etc. For shrimp, freshness is more important than size, please do remember that – the ideal are U-5 (under 5 per pound) shrimp IF they’re super-fresh!
For the tentsuyu dipping sauce – I will have you make a quick and dirty dashi (Japanese soup stock) to provide the best flavor profile – you can buy top-quality katusobushi (dried bonito) flakes here, and excellent konbu (seaweed) here. Any leftover broth would be ideal for use in my miso soup recipe!
Citizens, tempura is truly one of the world’s finest dishes, and I hope you enjoy my ruthlessly authentic version shared for the complete dining pleasure of TFD Nation!
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