Friday, November 13, 2009

Japanese Tempura

Special thanks to Aimee Weinstein for providing this Foodie Friday content about Japanese Tempura! Check out her website,

Since moving to Japan for the first time in 2003, I have been on a quest to taste as much Japanese food as possible. Of course there are things I don’t eat but they are few and far between, and so far, I have at least managed to try a little bit of even the most unappetizing-looking foods. Even though I have the attitude of “open your mouth and pray” when it comes to Japanese food, often I am surprised that something that doesn’t look appetizing to a foreigner tastes positively scrumptious. I used to eat tempura in the United States when I lived there so I thought it would be a familiar food when arriving in Japan. What I discovered, however, is that there are real differences between tempura inside Japan and outside.

The Japanese art of Tempura originates from a Portuguese process brought to Japan in the sixteen century by missionaries and then popularized by Shogun Ieyasu, the first of the long span of Tokugawa Shogunate. The missionaries used the method to fry their vegetables and fish which the Japanese people often ate raw. Today tempura is all over Japan in restaurants that range from snack shops to five-star establishments. Tempura, though, is more than just a fried shrimp.

The batter, which is mostly flour and egg, also contains a certain amount of cold water. Often in the best restaurants the batter is kept in a bowl over a bowl of ice to maintain the temperature. Colder batter does not clump and it does not allow the gluten to rise and separate so that the tempura when it’s fried, stays light and fluffy, not bogged down with the weight of the breading or batter. This is especially true in Japan where the best tempura is hand fried not machine-done. The Japanese have a strong belief in “slow” food – individual attention to each morsel.
In addition, the focus of tempura in Japan is light light light. In order to keep the breading subtle there are a few secrets: slice the vegetables and fish very thin. Dip it quickly into the batter and then put it directly into the hot oil, which must be kept at a constant temperature. If the chef uses a thick pan, like a wok, the oil maintains its heat throughout the surface area. If the fish or vegetable is thin enough the frying time is very fast, just long enough to allow the batter to set and cook. The inside item does not have to be cooked all the way through. Proper Japanese chefs use a mesh spoon to clear extra batter out of the oil lest it burn and put a bad taste into the oil, thereby infecting the taste of subsequent items.

In many places the tempura is served with a sauce called tsuyu. It’s a combination of dashi (bonito soup stock), mirin, sake and soy sauce. However, in the finest restaurants in Japan, patrons dip their small and light pieces into ground daikon (radish) or even in simple salt as directed by the chef. The shellfish tastes best with the salt, while fish and vegetables are best with the daikon.

No one will forget their first taste of tempura at a restaurant in Japan; it is not thick, but simply flavorful. No one feels bad after the meal as if he has eaten something heavy. I have learned that eating in Japan is an art as well as a function. Tempura is definitely something to experience as well as eat.


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