Japanese cuisine -- tempura
Tempura is, in many ways, an archetypal Japanese food. All the essential qualities of
Japanese cuisine are reflected in its preparation: the use of absolutely fresh ingredients,
the artful presentation, and the perfection of technique by a skilled chef. The result is
one of the triumphs of Japanese cooking -- a fried food that is light and fresh-tasting
rather than heavy and greasy. It's a cooking style in which the essence of the ingredient
itself completely defines the taste.
It comes as a surprise to most foreigners to learn that tempura was not originally a
Japanese dish; it actually owes its origins to the visiting Portuguese missionaries of the
sixteenth century. But tempura, like many imported ideas, gradually adapted itself to
Japanese needs and tastes. By the late nineteenth century tempura was a popular fast
food in Tokyo, sold from sidewalk stalls and roaming pushcarts, and today's modern
tempura (made by deep-frying vegetables, fish and shellfish) is no longer a foreign food
at all, but a completely Japanese cuisine.
Seafood and vegetables are the raw materials of tempura, and only the freshest
specimens are used. It's not unusual to see live shrimps jumping around on the
preparation counter, or buckets of slithering eels being carted through the kitchen. In
addition to using the freshest ingredients, the next most important factor in good
tempura is the quality of the batter, which is made from eggs, flour, and ice water. The
batter shouldn't be mixed too thoroughly, but should be lumpy and full of air bubbles.
To achieve this consistency the batter is made up in small batches immediately before
it's used, and each batch is thrown away when it starts to settle.
The vegetables and seafood are cut, washed, dried, and dipped in the batter to give
them a thin, almost transparent coating. After this they're dropped one at a time into
the oil (a combination of vegetable and sesame oil), which must be constantly kept at
exactly the right temperature. Finally, the tempura must be cooked for just the right
amount of time, pulled out of the oil the precise moment it's done. If all goes well, the
final product is perfect tempura -- crisp, golden brown, hot, and delicious.
A few tempura restaurants offer variations on the basic recipe, adding extra
ingredients to the batter to change the texture or flavor. One variation is to add chopped
noodles to the batter for a rougher and crisper coating.
As you can see, making tempura is a delicate process, and lots of things can go wrong.
It's possible to find many different levels of quality in restaurant tempura, ranging from
fairly bad (too greasy) to absolutely perfect (heavenly). As a general rule, tempura tends
to be better at specialty restaurants rather than at all-purpose Japanese restaurants.
Ordering and Eating
Tempura can usually be ordered by the piece, but many people prefer the more
economical set meal (teishoku). The teishoku includes several varieties of tempura,
plus rice, pickles, and soup. Various sizes of teishoku are available, differing in the
number of pieces of tempura. The most popular seafood items include prawns, squid,
shrimp, scallops, kisu (a type of smelt), and other kinds of fish. Many varieties of
vegetable are also available, including eggplant, lotus root, green pepper, sweet potato,
squash, shiitake mushroom, onion, shiso (perilla) leaf, and carrot. Usually some
seasonal fishes are offered as well, depending on the time of year.
The first rule of eating tempura is to get it while it's hot. If you're sitting at the
counter, the chef will transfer each piece directly from the vat of hot oil to the counter in
front of you, placing it on a sheet of white paper to drain off the excess oil. Even if you're
sitting at a table, every effort will be made to get your tempura to you as hot as possible.
You can show your appreciation by eating it as soon as you can (although you might
want to wait a minute or two to avoid burning your mouth).
When you use the dipping sauce, it's a good idea to dip the tempura quickly and
avoid lengthy soaking. The sauce may come with a small mound of grated radish,
which can be mixed in. Some tempura fans forgo the dipping sauce entirely, using just a
bit of salt or lemon for seasoning.
TEMPURA SAMPLE MENU
Note: Uppercase letters represent long vowel sounds.
assorted pieces of tempura with rice, soup and pickles
a larger assortment of tempura pieces, usually with rice, soup, pickles and dessert
chef's selection of tempura pieces
(kisetsu) yasai moriawase
assortment of (seasonal) vegetable tempura
diced shrimp fried tempura-style, with rice, soup and pickles
tempura-fried prawns over rice
A la Carte Seafood
Note: Seafood and vegetables vary according to the season.
* anago -- conger eel
* ayu -- sweetfish
* ebi -- shrimp
* kuruma-ebi -- prawn
* shiba-ebi -- prawn
* hamaguri -- clam
* haze -- goby
* hotategai -- scallops
* ika -- squid
* kaki -- oyster (winter)
* (ebi) kakiage -- diced shrimp and leek fried tempura-style
* ika kakiage -- diced squid fried tempura-style
* kaibashira kakiage -- scallop valve muscles
* kani -- crab
* kisu -- sillago (fish)
* megochi -- flathead (fish)
* shako -- mantis shrimp
* shirauo -- whitebait (fish)
* wakasagi -- freshwater smelt
* yamame -- brown river trout
* -isobemaki -- wrapped in dried seaweed and fried
* -norimaki -- same as -isobemaki
A la Carte Vegetables
* (kisetsu) yasai -- (seasonal) vegetables
* asupara -- asparagus
* -ebizume -- stuffed with shrimp
* fuki no tO -- coltsfoot buds (spring)
* gobO -- burdock root
* kabocha -- squash
* nasu -- eggplant
* nattO -- sticky, fermented soybean paste
* ninjin -- carrot
* nori -- dried black seaweed
* pIman -- green pepper
* satsuma imo -- sweet potato
* shiitake -- Japanese mushroom
* shishitO -- small Japanese green pepper
* shiso -- perilla leaves
* shungiku (no ha) -- chrysanthemum leaves (autumn)
* takenoko -- bamboo shoots (spring)
* tamanegi -- onion
* tara no me -- angelica tree buds (spring)