If you read my first post, you might remember that tempura was what sent me down this road in the first place. My father took us all to a Japanese restaurant when I was around seven or eight. I had shrimp tempura and it changed my life. After that, I made my mother learn how to cook it so it could replace lasagne for my birthday dinners. She can cook anything if she puts her mind to it, so I had many happy birthdays of eating homemade shrimp tempura.
I hardly ever have tempura anymore, since I go out to eat so rarely and when I do I always end up getting unadon. I can’t make unadon at home (yet) and I always have a vague notion that I’ll start making tempura anytime now. Somehow, I never do though, probably because shrimp is so expensive right now.
What actually made me decide to finally make tempura was that I needed tenkasu for another recipe. Tenkasu are bits of fried batter that you have leftover after making tempura. These crunchy delights are used a lot in Japanese cooking. You can buy them in a jar but it’s funner to just make tempura and save the tenkasu yourself. Besides, I was pleasantly surprised to see that I had everything I needed to make vegetable tempura all ready on hand.
Tempura is one of those meals that originally came from the west, but over several hundred years has been fully converted into a Japanese dish with Japanese flavors. Unlike most western style dishes (yoshoku), tempura didn’t come over with the flood of foods during the Meiji Restoration, but much earlier. Japan has had a history of intervals of isolation, most famously the Tokugawa or Edo Period (1603 to 1868), during which both visiting foreigners and citizens trying to leave were punished by death.
One of the reasons why the Tokugawa shogunate decided to close the island nation to the outside world was the spreading of christianity. Citizens who had a split loyalty of both the state and a western religion were considered dangerous to a stable government, so the religion was banned. Over the two centuries that Japan remained closed, the religion that had been brought over by Spanish and Portuguese missionaries was mostly stamped out. But not everything the missionaries had taught was forgotten, the technique of deep frying food was not lost and a dish called tempura flourished.
If you time traveled to the end of fifteen hundreds or early sixteen hundreds (back when the first Tokugawa shogun ate tempura regularly) you might not be able to recognize the original dish. Records show that it was probably thrush meat and shrimp made into meat balls and fried. However, by the 1700 and 1800s, it seems to have made its way closer to the dish we love today. The Edo Period was the beginning of Japan’s love affair with street vendors and the classic tempura stall (tempura yatai) was born, serving up battered vegetables and seafood.
Today, tempura is eaten all over the world and loved by many. The secret to its crunchy, light crust is a batter carefully made with chilled water, eggs, dashi and flour. It’s very important not to over mix the batter, which will make the tempura doughy. In fact, the less you mix, the better it will be and pockets of flour are encouraged. Keeping the batter chilled by adding ice will also help. The recipe I used was from Japanese Soul Cooking by Tadashi Ono and Harris Salat. They have very comprehensive instructions and step by step photographs.
I may be making it sound scary and touchy, but it’s actually very easy and fun. You can cut up lots of different types of veggies, I used Japanese sweet potatoes, carrots, daikon radishes, eggplants and squash blossoms from my own garden, and lotus root. I meant to do broccoli too, but I forgot I had used it the night before.
This is a very oily dish but is served both with rice and green tea, which breakdown and absorb the oils in your stomach. The traditional sauce is easy to make from soy sauce, dashi, mirin, shredded daikon and ginger, and is also great for this purpose.
As a lover of tempura, I have to say that making it was both satisfying and delicious. I had a lot of fun with it and enjoyed eating it too. My batter was crunchy, the vegetables were cooked to perfection, and I got a cup of tenkasu out of it. I hope that you will try this easy and classic Japanese dish, if not at home then at least at a good restaurant.
Until next time, keep your batter cold and crunch away.