Tempura: The Japanese Fried Food With a Surprising Origin

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Chances are if you’ve been to a Japanese restaurant you’ve at least seen tempura (天ぷら), fried foods usually served as a mixture of veggies and fish. Unlike most fried foods, though, tempura’s batter is much lighter as it uses less grease and no bread crumbs; it’s a batter made basically of flour, eggs, and water, sometimes with spices added in. The origin of the name actually comes from the Latin ad tempora cuaresme, meaning “in the time of Lent.”

Exif_JPEG_PICTURE Peixinhos_da_horta
Japanese tempura                          vs                     peixinhos da horta

You probably guessed by now, from the name alone, that tempura wasn’t originally a Japanese food. In fact, it was brought to Japan by Portuguese missionaries. The frying method is believed to have originated sometime in the 1600s as a meal to eat during Lent, a time when it is customary to forgo eating meat. In the mid-16th century, tempura came to Japan by way of Nagasaki (長崎), a port town in Japan that was, at the time, closed to almost all foreign traders. During this time, there were very few countries allowed to trade with Japan–China, the Netherlands, and Portugal being the most common traders; however, it was still during this time that many new cuisines were introduced into the country. At the time, Japan was actually one of the few countries who didn’t have their own method of frying foods, so the technique was quick to catch on. The original Portuguese-style tempura started as fried vegetables minced and fashioned into balls; however, it’s very popular in Japanese cooking to use food as whole as possible so as it gained traction in Japan tempura became the large slices of fish and vegetables that you see today. You can still find a green bean version of the original dish in Portugal under the name of peixinhos da horta.

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In Japan you can find many tempura-ya (天ぷら屋), restaurants that specialize solely in tempura dishes. This isn’t, however, the only place that you’ll be able to find tempura. Since tempura is served as a side, topping, or component to a large variety of dishes, it’s easy to find at almost any restaurant you want to try. When people think of tempura, they usually think of the side dish (sometimes eaten as an appetizer) that is usually just a mix of Japanese vegetables such as nasu (なす), or Japanese eggplant, kabocha (かぼちゃ), a Japanese pumpkin, satsuma imo (さつまいも), also called Japanese sweet potatoes, and maybe a piece or two of tempura fried shrimp served with a thin ten-tsuyu (天つゆ) on the side for dipping.

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However, those craving tempura but wanting a heartier dish shouldn’t fret! There are many other types of tempura dishes to enjoy. If it’s a cold day, a great way to eat your tempura is in a bowl of tempura udon (天ぷらうどん) or tempura soba (天ぷらそば), delicious udon or soba noodles in a dark broth with pieces of tempura fried shrimp sitting on top. On cool days you can order some ten-zaru-soba (天ざるそば), cold soba served with a dipping sauce that you can use for your noodles and your tempura. You can also never go wrong with a bowl of tendon (天丼), a bowl of rice and tempura laying on top; the tempura in a tendon is usually shrimp, but you can often ask for a certain type.

With such a simple batter it’s very easy to make tempura at home with the handy, easy-to-use pre-blended tempura flour you can buy at your local Japanese grocery store. Simply heat some oil in a pan while you mix your batter with cold water, coat your prepared ingredients in the batter, then fry until they’re cooked through. Before you start to fry your tempura, you can check the temperature of the oil by dropping a small bit of batter into the oil. If the piece falls to the bottom of the pan then floats back up right away, it’s hot enough to start frying your tempura. A good rule of thumb for timing your tempura is to let your vegetables cook for about 2-2½ minutes (letting each side cook for about 1 minute) and your seafood cook for about 10-20 seconds. If you want to cook leafy vegetables, such as shiso leaf or celery leaves, sprinkle them with a bit of flour prior to coating them in order to help the batter hold during the cooking process; cook these vegetables for a very small amount of time at a lower temperature in order to prevent burning.

You can buy the ten-tsuyu pre made, as well. However, it’s easy enough to make from scratch, too. All that’s required is dashi, soy sauce and mirin–all available at Asahi. Don’t forget to serve your dipping sauce with a side of grated daikon and ginger.

If you want to make it even easier to make tempura at home, there are a few tips and tricks to making perfect tempura. We’ve already gone over adding flour to your thin, leafy vegetables to help the batter adhere to the vegetable. You can also lightly dust your shrimp with flour before battering in order to help trap the moisture inside during the frying process. If you want crispy tempura pieces, use your fingers dipped in some batter to sprinkle it over the pieces as they fry. As you fry your tempura, make sure to use a spoon to skim the little pieces of fried tempura batter out of the oil; these can be used as crunchy add-ons to salads and noodle dishes. If you want to make your tempura batter lighter, a good trick is to substitute the water with cold club soda; the bubbles help make the batter light and airy. If you choose club soda or water, make sure it’s nice and cold–most recipes suggest using “ice-cold water”–as this also helps keep the batter from getting too thick and therefore makes your tempura light and crispy. It also helps to chill your batter before using it, or set your mixed bowl of batter on a bed of ice to help keep it chilled during the cooking process.

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If you want to make some tempura at home you can come to Asahi to buy batter mix, ten-tsuyu, and many different Japanese vegetables to try to tempura yourself. You can also pick up some Japanese splatter protectors to keep your stove-top clean while you’re frying away.

Are there any topics that you’d like to read about on the Asahi blog? Leave a comment below and let us know! Your topic could be the next one we cover!

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2 Comments

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    1. Hi Sarah!

      It’s hard to say exactly why tempura is so famous. Our best guess is the fact that it’s such a versatile way to cook, since you can make anything from fish to vegetables to leafy greens into a delicious tempura meal. It may also have to do with it’s unique, airy texture that’s tough to copy in other fried meals.

      As for region, the fact that tempura is so popular means that, rather than having one specific region, there are many different areas that specialize in their own region-specific type of tempura. The most popular place to get tempura would have to be Nagasaki, where the tempura has a sweeter batter, since it’s the origin of tempura in Japan. However you can also try tempura featuring pickled ginger from Osaka, manju (sweet bean steamed bun) tempura in Fukushima, or tempura rice balls in Aichi.

      Thanks for the question and thanks for reading the Asahi Blog!

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