The Japanese Delicacy (XII): Tempura
To many people’s surprise, tempura was introduced to Japan by the Portuguese. Over centuries, it has become a popular dish in Japan. Nowadays, tempura is considered to be a representative Japanese dish worldwide. It can be found in all types of Japanese restaurants, served as a main course, a side dish, or a topping over rice and noodles.
What is Tempura
Tempura is a typical Japanese dish. It is prepared by dipping food (seafood or vegetables) into a batter and then frying them in vegetable oil to create a light and crispy coating. At high-end restaurants, tempura is commonly served with only salt to enjoy the crispiness of the coating and the fresh ingredients. In other restaurants, tempura is usually served with tentsuyu (a dipping sauce for tempura), a sweet-salty dipping sauce made from fish stock, miso, and soy sauce, and side dishes, such as mashed radish and ginger.
The tempura batter has only three ingredients: flour, eggs, and ice water. Ice water is necessary because it slows down the formation of gluten, thus preventing the batter from becoming too thick and too much oil from being absorbed during the frying process. This simple but amazing recipe creates a fluffy and light coating that is symbolic of the tempura.
History of Tempura
The tempura was introduced to Japan by Portuguese missionaries during the Muromachi period (1336 to 1573). The word “tempura” comes from the Latin word “tempora”, which refers to the fasting period when the Church mandated Catholics to go meatless. Tempura came to Japan via Nagasaki, a port city. At that time, Japan was isolated from the rest of the world and only connected with Portuguese, Dutch, and Chinese merchants and missionaries in Nagasaki. Unlike other countries, Japan had never had a tradition of deep-frying food. The frying method used for tempura was new in Japan. Soon, tempura became a popular snack served between meals. Japanese cooks added sugar into the flour, then covered the ingredients in a thick batter and deep-fried them in lard. Since the batter is already seasoned, the tempura is eaten directly.
In the 17th century, the new cooking method spread from west to east and reached Kyoto and Osaka, where tempura was called "tsukeage." In Kyoto, vegetables were common and the region has close ties to Buddhism, which prohibits the consumption of meat. Therefore, lard was replaced by sesame and other vegetable oils, and only vegetables were used in tempura. The vegetarian version of tempura was also known as “shojin tempura.”
Originally, tempura was made of minced meat, vegetables, and fish. Japan has a long tradition of eating natural foods and honors freshness and seasonality. Ingredients are best enjoyed in their natural state to preserve their natural flavors. Thus, in the 18th century, Japanese chefs began frying vegetables and fish whole, which marked the beginning of tempura being considered a meal rather than a mere snack. The tempura was introduced to Edo (today Tokyo) in the late 18th century when street vendors of tempura were replaced by restaurants.
Types of Tempura
Ebi: The shrimp (or prawn) tempura is the most popular tempura that can be found in all tempura dishes.
Sakana: This means, "fish" tempura, including small fillets or whole small fish.
Nasu: It is one of the most popular vegetable tempura. The eggplant tempura is soft and juicy.
Kinoko: Mushrooms are another welcomed ingredient for tempura.
Kabocha: It is a kind of Japanese pumpkin with dark green skin and orange flesh. It is sweet and starchy.
Satsumaimo: It is a type of Japanese sweet potato. It tastes quite similar to kabocha, which is like a pumpkin.
Shiso: It is a kind of leaf with a mint/garlic flavor. Some people may find it hard to bear its taste.
Kakiage: It is a type of patty made of vegetable shreds and seafood. It is often served as a side dish or a topping.