Sunday 30 January 2022

Tempting Tempura: Typical Japanese Food?

While COVID cases in the UK seem to have peaked, the situation here in Japan is getting worse by the day - Tokyo had over 17,000 cases yesterday, a massive increase from the beginning of January when there were less than a 100. As a result, we are now in the rather strangely termed "quasi/semi state of emergency" (まん延防止=man'en bōshi shortened to manbō by most Japanese) which literally means "prevention of the spread of disease." All this really signifies is that restaurants are "encouraged" to close by 9:00pm and limit the serving of alcohol (with subsidies for those that cooperate). Most do cooperate, and bring in their noren early (a noren is short curtain hung at the entrance signifying they are open - white letters on blue in the picture). Luckily, I did manage to enjoy eating out over the winter holiday and seeing as food posts always seem to be the most popular - the number one all-time post is my one on wagyu - this time I thought I'd talk a little about tempura and my visit to a tempura-ya, a specialised tempura restaurant.

Three kinds of tempura (left  to right): shrimp, kakiage (mixed fritter), and ayu (sweetfish)

Although tempura is usually thought of as a "typical" Japanese food, the concept of deep frying in oil was actually introduced by the Portuguese in the 16th century. During the Edo Period, tempura - battered deep-fried fish and vegetables - was a popular street food, and today it is everywhere: from cheap supermarkets to high class kaiseki restaurants. 

The tempura batter must be freshly mixed using ice-cold water, flour, and egg yolks to give a fluffy, airy texture (recipe here). The ingredients are then cooked at a relatively low temperature for a short time usually in sesame oil. Once done, tempura should be eaten immediately either by dipping in tentsuyu (天つゆ), a light sauce made of dashi broth, mirin, and soy sauce (with added grated daikon radish and ginger as in the picture below) or by dipping in salt: the restaurant I went had three different types of salt, natural, herb, and moshio (藻塩), the latter a kind of traditional salt made from burning seaweed. The salt option is apparently more popular in the Kansai area - and also more popular amongst tempura connoisseurs. Watching the chef work non-stop, memorising orders, making new batter, and frying the various ingredients - eggplant, shiitake mushrooms, pumpkin, white fish, shrimp, sweet potato, lotus root - to crispy perfection was fascinating. It was also interesting to see him occasionally fishing out tenkasu (crunchy bits of fried batter floating in the oil) using an ami-jakushi (網杓子) mesh scoop.

As a final aside, I would like to note that from this year comments are open! I'm going to get the ball rolling by writing my personal opinion down and hopefully readers will follow up with theirs! So what is your favourite Japanese food - and what other foods would you like me to cover? As well as wagyu mentioned earlier, I've also covered sukiyaki, yakiniku, takoyaki, oden, curry rice, grilled eel, sushi, and gyūdon. Did I miss anything? Let me know in the comments (click on "X comments:" after "Posted by Chris Burgess at 12:29" right below!).