Everything You Need to Know About Tempura

The first thing that usually pops into your head when you walk into a Japanese restaurant is sushi or ramen. You must admit, though; raw fish and pork-infused soup aren't for everyone. Not everybody likes the smell, consistency, and flavor of these delicacies. You need something more familiar to the palate, yet unique to its culture. When you look at the menu, what’s the next safest thing you can order without straying too far from traditional Japanese Cuisine? The answer is Tempura.

What Exactly Is Tempura?

Many automatically picture tempura as a piece of shrimp coated in a crunchy, bready outer shell. That’s because it’s the most popular variety! The truth is, Tempura does not necessarily have to consist of shrimp. “Tempura” is simply any seafood or vegetable that you dip into a special batter and deep-fry.

The History Of the Japanese Tempura

This delectable Japanese dish did not exactly have purely Asian origins. In fact, the word “tempura” stems from the Latin word “Tempora”. Tempora directly translates to “time period”. Spaniards and Portuguese used this word to refer to a set of days (what is known as Holy Week) where they would only eat seafood and vegetables as a Lenten sacrifice. They would make dishes specifically for this period to avoid eating meat and came up with the concept of deep-frying their agriculture and seafood products in eggs and flour. An example of this is still seen around Portugal today, known as “Peixinhos da horta”, and is eaten as a finger food.

During the middle of the 16th century, Europeans were part of the few who were trading goods with the Japanese, as their ports at the time were closed. The Japanese probably then picked up the word “Tempora” from both Portuguese missionaries and traders, associated the word with the dish, and enjoyed it so much that they put their own spin on it and adopted it into their culture.

At that time, tempura did not taste the same as it does now. Lard was used for cooking the fritters, and their batter had different kinds of additions to it such as sake, salt, and sugar. It was also considered an expensive luxury to eat, so it was not easily available for commoners. Over time, Japan started developing food stalls. Food stall culture is deeply embedded in Japan’s food history and is referred to as “Yatai”. Yatai began around the 17th century, particularly popular, initially speaking, near bays around Tokyo. As the Edo period rolled in, so did the style of eating tempura with its special sauce, with shredded bits of “daikon” or radish. It also helped that the bays in Tokyo had so much seafood to offer, heavily fueling the tempura business. As technology progressed, oil became easier and cheaper to produce, thus tipping the supply and demand scale to the favor of those who once couldn’t afford it.

The Different Types of Tempura

Tempura is an incredibly versatile dish. It can be easily made at home or served as an option in fast food restaurants, takeout in bento boxes, and even as a grandiose appetizer in high-end bistros. Restaurants around the world (and even in Japan) create “fusions”, where they intermix recipes with ingredients across nations. For example, some chefs take the tempura batter and use it to fry asparagus. It is still considered tempura. Some even go as far as creating tempura dessert variations, deep-frying bananas that are coated in the said batter, and serving it with ice cream.

When you get down to the bottom of it, the final tempura product is all about how the dish was cooked, and what was used to cook it. It all depends greatly on the batter you choose, the quality of the oil, the seasoning added, and most importantly, the freshness, uniqueness, and succulence of the vegetables or seafood you will use.

For seafood, you can use virtually anything to make tempura. Shrimps, crabs, scallops, eels, prawns, squid, are free game. When it comes to fish, you can be as creative as using salmon, sea bass, and even catfish. Shrimp tempura in Japanese is called “Ebi”. Fillet fish such as sweetfish and whiting are called “Sakana”.

For vegetables, tasty choices would be mushrooms (“Kinoko”), lotus roots, green beans, sweet potatoes (“Satsumaimo”), bell peppers, eggplants (“Nasu”), and onions. Those are only a few out of a long list of possible vegetables to use! There’s even a tempura dish type that combines different chopped vegetables together as it is deep fried – this is called “Kakiage”. Tofu is a valid option as well to turn into tempura. You don’t even have to stick to the rules if you don’t want to. You can use the batter to fry anything edible!

Why Should You Eat Tempura?

Aside from the fact that it tastes divine, you should eat tempura because of two reasons. Firstly, it teaches you a lot about the food culture of Japan, and how globalization created such a dish that exists as a staple in many people’s diets today. The second reason is that it’s quite nutritionally complete on its own. You’ve got fat from the oil, protein (if your choice has seafood/tofu), nutrients (if your choice has veggies) and carbohydrates from the batter to power you through your day. A piece of shrimp tempura, evenly battered and fried, would go for about 60 calories, which is a decent amount if eaten in balanced portions with other food.

How Should You Eat Tempura?

Tempura can be eaten by itself, dipped in “tentsuyu” (its sauce), or mixed into other dishes, such as soups and rice bowls. What’s most important is that tempura is consumed right after it’s fried so that it is experienced in its peak delicious state; crunchy, piping hot, and bursting with flavor.

When Tempura is eaten by itself, it is usually salted a little bit to appreciate the flavor of the protein or vegetable. You may also opt to sprinkle on a spice such as yuzu. In most restaurants, it is served with a sauce that is comprised of mirin, fish stock, soy sauce, with a little ginger and radish grated in. Others prefer having tempura with their noodles, bringing out an entirely different dimension of the fritter.

Always eat the lighter forms of tempura before going to those that are heavier in protein; start with the vegetables, then shrimp and fish, and end with eel. To respect and understand the flavors, (especially with prawn tempura), take smaller bites as you ease down to the middle of the tempura, which supposedly has a more intense essence.

Tempura With Your Udon

“Udon” is a kind of thick-shaped noodle made from wheat flour. You’ll find this noodle in all kinds of clear hot soups, with the broth’s color and flavor varying from region to region in Japan. A popular topping to go with udon soup is tempura, particularly Ebi. As the tempura is dunked into the balanced broth, it brings more flavor and depth to the otherwise neutral dish. This is a must-try if you ever find yourself in the streets of Japan.

How To Cook Good Tempura

The first thing you must do to cook good tempura is know how you like it. Do you prefer a rich, decadent batter that weighs on the seafood, and gloriously on your stomach afterward? Or do you prefer a light, wispy, crunchy layer that supplies texture but little weight? Which seafood or vegetable do you like the most? Once you find these out, you may get the general gist of a recipe and tweak it to make it yours.

There are three parts to cooking tempura; preparing the seafood/vegetable (let’s say, shrimp), creating the batter, dipping the seafood into the batter, and frying everything up. Take your shrimp, deshell, and devein everything. Onto the batter. Mix a cup of flour, two tablespoons of potato starch, and a teaspoon of baking soda all together. Sift this mixture. In a separate bowl, beat an egg, and then incorporate a cup of cold water in. Little by little, add in the sifted flour mixture into the bowl with egg and water. Don’t overmix this, as lumps are what make the batter great. Have a pot of oil over fire; you want that oil to be around 170 degrees Celsius. Seafood in particular cooks best at about 190 degrees. Coat your shrimp individually in the batter, and drop them into the sizzling oil. The tempura should float in the middle of the oil, cooking. Leave them there for only about 20 seconds, and then pull them out. If your frying pan is too shallow, flip the sides of the shrimp every 15-20 seconds. Don’t do too many at a time; the batter clump up and stick to each other.

The seasoning and sauces are completely up to you. You can choose to drizzle some green tea powder on top, or as aforementioned, some yuzu. You can even add ketchup if you like!

 The Crucial Part: The Tempura Batter

Not all batters are the same. Some use rice flour, all-purpose flour, cornstarch, potato starch, baking powder, and a mingling match of all or some. The lumps formed in the batter, after sifting and adding the egg, are a good sign for coming crunchiness, so it’s crucial never to overbeat. Which should you use? It all depends on personal preference, as well as experiments.

An interesting suggestion is to use cold sparkling water instead of normal water. The sparkling water reportedly gives the batter a lighter texture and supposedly lets the batter stick easier to the seafood or vegetable that’s being dipped in it. Here’s another extra trick: adding vodka! Vodka makes flour stickier than it already has the potential to be because they combine to create gluten. So let’s look at our recipe earlier. Where does this special batter information fit into? The vodka goes straight to the eggs (let’s say, a shot or two), and after that’s mixed, quickly add the sparkling water. Once the batter is formed, your choice of seafood/veggie should be dipped, fried (always cook with oil that has great quality, like peanut oil, or olive oil) and carefully plated top of paper towel to absorb the excess oil. Try these tips, and that batter will turn out as something out of the ordinary.

The Best Part: Tempura Sauce

Yes, the “best part” does boil down to preference – but come on, how could you not love tempura sauce? Called “Tentsuyu” in Japanese, you can easily make a batch of this at home. Just take half a cup of mirin, half a cup of soy sauce, one and a half cups of water, and three cups of fish stock or “dashi”. If you don’t have fresh fish stock at hand, you may use half a teaspoon of dashi granules instead. Add each ingredient to a pot, until the mixture boils. This is the basic, easy recipe for Tentsuyu, but you may adjust or exchange other ingredients as you please. If you don’t have mirin, for instance, or you don’t like the strength of its taste or smell, you may replace it with some sake and sugar. Don’t forget to add the radish right before you dunk your tempura!

What’s A Good Tempura Restaurant?

In case you ever visit Tokyo, don’t forget to drop by one of its most well-known Tempura houses; Funabashiya Honten Restaurant. Found in 3 Chome-28-14 Shinjuku, Shinjukuku, this Funabashiya Honten Restaurant stands as one Shinjuku’s oldest restaurants. They’ve apparently been around, perfecting and selling their luscious Tempura for one hundred years. You’ll end up spending an average about 1,400 yen per person. But hey, if you want a taste of any of their mouthwatering dishes, you’ll have to get ready to stand in a queue. A whole lot of locals think their deep-fried food is the bomb too!

Food Similar To Tempura

If you think about it, the western take on Fish Fillet is sort of just like Tempura. Perhaps the Japanese use different fish to fry, as well as seasonings and sauces to go with it, but it’s the same thing! It’s a filleted fish, dipped in a batter, and tossed into the fryer. Anything battered and deep-fried would remind one about tempura. It just goes to show that though people have their own practices in our cultures, they aren’t so different from neighboring countries after all!