Most of us have had Tempura. It’s the name given in Japan to usually fish or vegetables deep fried in a thin batter. According to the Oxford Companion to Food it is one of the most important and beloved methods for preparing food in Japan and are part of a large category of foods called Agemono.
The tempura cooking method and name is believed to have been brought to Japan from Portugal by Catholic missionaries in the 16th century. The Portuguese word tempuras means Ember Days, when meat was not eaten. This may be the basis for the descriptor. The cooking of fish and vegetables in a crisp batter as a result made these highly desirable and a good substitute for meat.
The Portuguese remained in Japan until 1639, when they were banished because the ruling shogun believed Christianity was a threat to Japanese society. As their ships sailed away for the final time, the Portuguese left an indelible mark on the islands: a battered and fried green bean recipe called peixinhos da horta which many believe is the genesis of tempura. It has been a staple of the country’s cuisine ever since.
Peixinhos da horta is a traditional dish in Portuguese cuisine. The name is literally translates as “Little fishes from the garden”, as it resembles small pieces of colorful fish. Peixinhos da horta is usually prepared with green beans in a wheat flour-based batter that are then deep-fried. Other vegetables such as bell peppers and squash are also used. A recipe is included below. The deep-fried bites are normally eaten dipped in tentsuyu, a mixture of soy sauce, mirin and dashi with a little freshly grated daikon mixed in.
Tempura became important as street food in the early Edo period. With the increase of oil production, food stalls started selling tempura as a skewered snack food, alongside soba, sushi, and eel. By the late Edo and early Meiji era, tempura shops and restaurants emerged and started establishing their position as an important specialty cuisine. Today tempura has become something much more than just street food. You can find incredible tempura restaurants all over Japan, where all of your meals will be cooked by a highly trained chef who devotes his entire cooking career to tempura frying.
I was lucky enough to spend many years cooking in Japan, basically hustling California Food and Wine. The gift that I received from these visits was to learn deeply about the Japanese culinary arts. I was introduced to the recognition that Japanese bestow on artists of all kinds. They recognize them as “National Treasures.” For good reason, because they are the experts and mentors of the next generation. Shouldn’t we have a similar designation in America?
I had a chance to visit and sample the efforts of the “National Treasure Tempura Chef”. It’s a vivid memory. We entered his restaurant set up like a pristine sushi bar facing the chef. He was in front of a big copper cauldron of oil, gently moving on the surface. He would cook one small item at a time and give it to a guest. He’d follow this with each guest and the amazing thing was that he never repeated the same item. The mind blower is that each piece of tempura was presented on a small linen napkin in which no oil spot appeared. It was the skill of the chef to fry at the right temperature and time to accomplish this.
TEMPURA DIPPING SAUCE (Tentsuyu)
VEGETABLES, MUSHROOMS & SEAWEED TEMPURA
GREEN BEANS TEMPURA
MAITAKE (HEN OF THE WOODS) TEMPURA W/PONZU DIPPING SAUCE
This article was published in the Santa Rosa Press Democrat, August 2023
All photographs by John Burgess of Santa Rosa Press Democrat