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Tempura temptations: How deep-fried seafood seduced Japan

November 14, 2016

Sparklingly fresh seafood. Seasonal vegetables. They sit on the kitchen counter, their delicate flavors waiting to be enjoyed in their glorious simplicity. Some ingredients could be eaten just as they are, some would be ready with the lightest lick of heat. Then they’re scooped up, dunked in batter and deep-fried in hot oil. A few minutes later, one of Japan’s most famous dishes sits before you: tempura. “What is this perverse idea?!” you might cry, whilst secretly thinking that green peppers have drastically higher taste appeal when glistening in crunchy batter. “And how could it come from Japan, the land renowned for its healthy cuisine?” Whilst the first encounter might be a little surprising, tempura will force you to re-evaluate everything you’ve ever thought about deep-fried food.

Tempura is a national dish of Japan and considered to be one of the best ways to enjoy seasonal ingredients. These ingredients are coated in a batter of eggs, flour and water, and served with salt or a simple tentsuyu sauce made from soy sauce, mirin (sweet rice wine) and dashi, often mixed with grated daikon. To understand this somewhat anomalous addition to Japanese cuisine, we have to turn back to the end of the 16th century, where Portuguese merchants in Nagasaki were cooking up fritters from their homeland. These were made with a far heavier batter and eaten without sauce.

Leaping roughly 200 years forwards and north to Tokyo, we can see the transformation and popularization of tempura truly begin to take place. In the late 18th century, when Tokyo was known as Edo, many yatai (street food stalls) popped up around the bay area. These sold seafood and vegetable skewers, deep-fried and consumed on the spot. Cheaper production of sesame and rapeseed oil saw tempura spread further. Unique in its taste and cooking method, this crunchy snack grew rapidly in popularity.

By the beginning of the 19th century, tempura was on several restaurant menus; by the middle of the century, it was listed in Edo restaurant guides, suggesting that tempura was no longer just a street snack but enjoyed by those of higher social status. It was also featured in ukiyo-e art, which depicted beauties eyeing deep-fried delights with obvious relish.

"Looking delicious" by TSUKIOKA YOSHITOSHI (1888) courtesy of the National Diet Library

Ukiyo-e, woodblock prints popular during the Edo period (1603-1868), gives us a tantalizing insight into the history of tempura. Here, we can see a lady about to tuck into a shrimp or perhaps a Japanese whiting. Her pose would have likely been familiar to the viewers of the time - it’s a near replica of a painting from 30 years earlier by another famous ukiyo-e master, Utagawa Kuniyoshi. However, a difference is noticeable in the tempura batter, which appears distinctively thicker like a fritter, indicating improvements in the refinement of flour. Thus, we can track the development of ingredients and cooking through art.

The origins of the word “tempura” itself are a matter of some debate. One theory suggests it came from the Latin word “tempura” meaning “times” or “time period” - this was used by Portuguese missionaries to refer to Lent, a period in which they would eat fritters as the consumption of meat was forbidden. Another suggests it came from “tempero”, the Portuguese word for “cookery”.

In modern day Japan, the first part of the word “ten” is written with a character meaning “sky” or “heaven”. I personally feel this is a very good name for it - because, at a good tempura store, every mouthful will be a piece of deep-fried heaven.

Photo: Phoebe Amoroso

A popular tempura dish is a “tendon” - a combination of “tempura” and “donburi” (rice bowl). I ventured to Kaneko Hannosuke in Nihonbashi where I tucked into a bowl so voluminous that it resembled Mt Fuji. The toppings included sea eel that felt too large to pick up politely with chopsticks, two plump and juicy shrimp, a scallop fritter, as well a deep-fried egg, still runny in the middle.

Only six years old, the store is reviving some culinary history. The current owner’s grandfather, after whom the shop is named, produced a series of handwritten recipe books, inside which was a special sauce called “edomae”, harking back to tempura’s Edo roots. The light and very slightly sweet sauce is poured over the mountainous battered assortment.

Whilst the simple tendon can be a spectacular and gluttonous sight, to fully appreciate the evolution of tempura - from its street food roots to its pedestal place within Japanese cuisine - you must venture to a tempura course restaurant.

One such place is Mikawa Zezankyo in east Tokyo, where chef Tetsuya Soutome treats tempura as a science. Now in his seventies, he has been deep-frying since the tender age of 15.

Soutome has designed an entire system for the creation and consumption of tempura, built into the kitchen environment in which he works. Customers surround him at a counter of 45cm width. This, he insists, is the optimum amount of space for the precise timings for the cooking and the serving.

He works in silence. He’s calculating: the temperature of the oil, adjusted to the ingredient; the amount of time each ingredient is to be fried; on which side, how and when it should be turned.

“You must know your ingredients better than your children,” Soutome laughs, although he’s only half-joking. “People choose ingredients based on what they’re told is good to buy. But ingredients must suit your purpose. What everyone else says is irrelevant.”

Deep-frying in batter is a unique cooking method as it combines two cooking processes - frying and steaming. Water in the batter, once heated close to 100°C, steams the ingredients inside. This, Soutome claims, brings out the natural flavor but can also create an entirely new flavor in itself.

So please put any prior experiences aside and banish all ideas of deep-fried batter masking the bland interior. High-end tempura takes taste to a whole new level. But remember this warning: with every second from its completion, the deliciousness decreases. Tempura is a meal where stuffing your face as quickly as possible is completely legitimate.

Photo: Phoebe Amoroso

The course begins with three otoshi (appetizers), followed by rounds of tempura, before a tendon, miso soup, pickles, and a simple dessert. The tempura rounds are carefully ordered from ingredients with a lighter flavor to those with a stronger taste.

The first round begins with shrimps, naturally sweet, followed by the heads cooked to crispy perfection. Then, a Japanese whiting arrives. It’s battered only on the body side to allow moisture to escape the skin. Next comes a fat chunk of squid so soft that it seems to melt in my mouth.

Reflecting the seasonal nature of tempura, tastes of autumn appear. A matsutake mushroom is served with sudachi (Japanese citrus) and with instructions to eat from the softer head to the firmer stalk. Ginkgo nuts, skewered on a tiny stick, are slightly chewy at first bite but give way to sublime smoothness.

The variety and quantity of tempura are both astounding. There’s a sea urchin - its texture light and fluffy - parceled up in shiso leaves. A dragonet comes with a recommendation to try half with the salt and half with the tentsuyu.

Last of the seafood rounds is the sea eel. Still sizzling, it’s placed in front of me and chopped in half with ninja-like precision.

This is food that is performed, rather than simply made. Spotlighted on their greaseproof paper, the rounds of tempura appear like a showcase at an exhibition. Tempura is justifiably a national dish of Japan, but it could also be the world’s first deep-fried art.

Text: Phoebe Amoroso

Tendon Kaneko Hannosuke
Address: 1-11-15, Muromachi Nihonbashi, Chuo-ku, Tokyo, 103-0022
Tel: +81-3-3243-0707
Some English spoken / English menu available

Mikawa Zezankyo
Address: 1-3-1 Fukuzumi, Koto-ku, Tokyo, 135-0032
Tel: +81-3-3643-8383
Some English spoken / English menu available