The oddity of tempura is that it was not invented sooner than it was. Japan, just across the Sea of Japan from mainland China, was remarkably resistant to frying stuff for the longest time. Given that the Chinese had been chucking stuff in oil for centuries, and that fried protein is the best goddamed thing on the plant, it is puzzling that it took until the 1600s for Portuguese holy men to introduce the idea of tempura to Japan. At that time, incoming missionaries from Portugal would avoid meat during Lent. In order to make Lent bearable the Portuguese would fry vegetables and mushrooms, and chit-chat in Latin about:
“Ad tempora cuaresme.”
… which translates to ‘in the time of Lent.’
A little like anyone hearing a new language for the first time, the Japanese latched onto the central word and thought that was the name of the fried goodies, hence ‘tempura.’
Once the Japanese had got to grips with frying, initial attempts were made with balls of mixed minced meats and finely diced vegetables. At some point, some bright spark started frying whole shrimp and fillets of fish. This spoke directly to the Japanese idea of food in its purest and most natural form, and it was this evolution that made tempura truly Japanese.
There is a dumb idea that Tokugawa Ieyasu, the first Shogun of Japan ate so much tempura that he died of it. This bollocks falls over at the first hurdle because Ieyasu was not the first Shogun of Japan, and the dude who actually occupied that position was lording it up only 800 years after Christ sparked out on the cross – i.e. way before tempura was invented. I have nothing against bollocks food stories, but this one is ridiculous.
These days, tempura has been elevated from a between-meal snack into a dish in its own right, where it is served resplendent atop rice or soba noodles. A soy dip is often on the side.
Making tempura is harder than many folks make out. The oft-repeated idea of making a thin batter with fizzy water and hoping for the best is not the way to go. If you really want a masterclass in tempura, then watch Chef Eddy Tseng below as he uses wok-enabled witchcraft to generate the crispiest tempura in all the world. This is the method we use to make tempura and we can add that it makes an unholy mess of the kitchen.
- 500ml ice-cold water (coldness is critical to prevent activation of gluten)
- Large pinch of salt
- 1 egg
- 250g self-raising flour (Tseng calls it 'cake flour')
- 1.5L vegetable oil
- Small, raw food pieces to cook (e.g., king prawns, broccoli florets, courgette flowers, asparagus tips)
Whisk the egg and salt into the water. Place the water mixture in a mixing bowl, add the flour stir (do not whisk) until fairly smooth. Lob in some ice cubes to keep it cold
Heat the oil in a wok. To test the oil temperature, add a drop or two of the batter. If the batter sinks, the fat is too cold. If it floats immediately, then it is too hot. If it starts to sink and bounces back up before reaching the bottom, then the temperature is just right.
Drizzle some of the batter into the wok from chest height (take care) to create a sizzling crumb of partly-cooked batter. Dredge your food pieces in flour (for those foods that are not naturally wet, like broccoli, run them under a cold tap first), and then coat with batter. To cook a piece of food, use a spider sieve spoon to scoop some of the crumb to the edge of the wok. Add the battered piece of food and slightly sink it so that the crumb sticks. Once the crumb is stuck, float the piece of food and spoon more crumb over the top. Allow the piece to float free and cook before recovering into a paper-lined bowl. Repeat for other pieces of food until you have no crumb left. Scoop pout any remming crumb and discard. Repeat the whole cycle again for each batch of tempura.