Everything you need to know about tempura in Japan
If you think tempura is just another fried food – think again. This quintessential Japanese cuisine dates back to the Edo Period (1603-1867) and is perhaps second only to sushi as Japan’s culinary contribution to the world.
Simple yet elegant, tempura is ubiquitous in various forms throughout Japan. Tastey tidbits of lightly batter-fried veggies and seafood adorn almost every bento box and are found in virtually every grocery store for a mere 60-100 yen ($0.60-$0.85) each. It’s a mainstay with noodles, and the essential snack food of Okinawa.
No Japanese restaurant is complete without some tempura on the menu and many do well specializing in it. A typical tempura restaurant usually has a counter where cooks prepare and then immediately serve tempura.
While a good bowl of tempura-topped rice goes for a reasonable 600-1,000 yen at most chain tempura-ya, or tempura shops, their high-end counterparts draw connoisseurs willing dish out up to 20,000 yen for a multicourse meal featuring the dish.
“Tempura is the ideal food,” says Akira Akashi of Ten-ichi tempura house in Sasebo. The traditional frying technique, he adds, preserves the flavor and texture of the food.
“Tempura is a really wonderful dish because the food is not cooked directly by the hot oil, but by steam under the batter,” Akashi says. “This preserves the delicate nuances of the food. In fact, it is often considered a steamed dish.”
So what is the ideal food to turn into tempura? What isn’t?
Common Ingredients include shrimp, squid, fish, green bell pepper, eggplant, sweet potatoes, pumpkin, mushroom, lotus root, bamboo shoots, carrot, burdock, green beans, okra and onion. But, that’s not all.
There are seasonal and regional favorites such as oysters in the winter and, depending where you are, chicken, pork and other meats. Even Spam, that Okinawan favorite, is commonly used down south where there is a slightly different twist on tempura.
Tempura is very popular on Okinawa, just like in the mainland. But it has a slightly different look and taste. While mainlanders cook tempura in thin plain batter for maximum crisp, Okinawans prefer a richer thicker seasoned batter for maximum flavor.
“Selling for a mere 60 yen ($0.50) a piece, on Okinawa tempura is considered more of a snack, like “takoyaki” (breaded fried octopus) or “nikuman” (meat buns)” says Kyoko Hirata of Okinawa Convention and Visitors Bureau. “It is usually made a little flatter here with well-seasoned yellow batter made with lots of eggs.”
“Fish tempura – both tuna and white fish – squid, red potato, as well as seaweed and sausage are popular ingredients,” she adds.
For the most part, Hirata says, tempura is typically sold at fish and candy stores on Okinawa. However, tempura restaurants that serve fare like those in mainland Japan can also be found in larger Okinawan cities.
While Okinawan-style tempura can be easily enjoyed without a condiment, its mainland counterpart is almost always eaten with a special dipping sauce, salt or citrus juice.
The most common dipping sauce for this kind of tempura is “tentsuyu,” a thin sauce made from soy sauce, sweet sake and stock. However, straight soy sauce has also been used as a dipping sauce since Edo Era when tempura tempura originated as an inexpensive food for commoners.
So whether you are looking for a quick snack or an elaborate traditional meal, check out the nearest tempura-ya outside the gates. It’s a great way to get a true taste of the Land of the Rising Sun.
“The simple and quick cooking process makes the flavor of any ingredient that’s cooked really stand out,” says Izumi Sakamoto of Tan-nen restaurant in Hachinohe. “That is the great charm of tempura.”
Tidbits on tempura
Can you imagine frozen ice cream served up as piping hot tempura?
Some of the more unusual tempura-prepared foods include “umeboshi,” or pickled plums; “natto,” or fermented soybeans, banana, mango and sushi.
Perhaps, however, the most unusual tempura of all is ice cream.
Although it is hard to believe you have “ice” cream deep fired in 350 degree oil, it is possible. The trick is to encase the ice cream in a pound cake-like shell or something similar with air pockets. The air in the cake prevents ice cream from melting in the heat until this unique tempura is cooked and ready to eat.
Needless to say, it should be eaten as soon as it is done cooking.
All fried foods are NOT equal
You may have notice that in addition to tempura there are also popular deep-fried foods in Japan that are usually coated with panko breadcrumbs. But make no mistake – as tasty as these foods may be, they are not tempura.
What sets them apart? It’s simple – the breading.
In Japan, fried vegetables and seafood with breadcrumbs are called “furai” (fry), such as “ebi” (shrimp) furai or “aji” (fish) furai, or “kaki” (oyster) furai.
Similarly breaded meats and similar foods, on the other hand, are called “katsu” (cutlet) such as “ton-katsu” (pork cutlet) or bifu-katsu (beef cutlet).
They are considered to be completely different from tempura. Both furai and katsu are seasoned first, then flour, egg and breadcrumbs are applied before they are deep fried.
There is also another popular Japanese fried dish, called “karaage.” This is usually, chicken pieces, shrimp or octopus that is seasoned then coated with rice flour or starch before being fried.
What's in a word?
Speculation on the origins of tempura
The recipe for tempura was introduced to Japan by Portuguese Jesuit missionaries particularly active in the city of Nagasaki also founded by the Portuguese, during the sixteenth century (1549).
Tokugawa Ieyasu, founder and first shogun of the Tokugawa Shogunate of Japan, reportedly loved tempura. Originally, tempura was a popular food eaten at street venders called yatai since the Genroku era.
The word “tempura,” or the technique of dipping fish and vegetables into a batter and frying them, comes from the word “tempora,” a Latin word meaning “times,” or “time period” used by both Spanish and Portuguese missionaries to refer to the Lenten period or Ember Days (ad tempora quadragesimae), Fridays, and other Christian holy days.
Ember Days or quattuor tempora refer to holy days when Catholics avoid red meat and instead eat fish or vegetables. The idea that the word “tempura” may have been derived from the Portuguese noun tempero, meaning a condiment or seasoning of any kind, or from the verb temperar, meaning “to season” has not been substantiated. However, the Japanese language could easily have assumed the word “tempero” as is, without changing any vowels as the Portuguese pronunciation in this case is similar to the Japanese.
There is still today a dish in Portugal very similar to tempura called peixinhos da horta, “garden fishies.”, which consists in green beans dipped in a batter and fried. The end result is usually chewier than tempura.
It is also possible that the Portuguese picked the technique up from Goa which was their colony in India and this could very well be a variation of the pakora.
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, the word “tempura” is also commonly used to refer to satsuma age, a fried fish cake which is made without batter.