Tempura is a Japanese dish of battered and deep fried seafood and/or vegetables. The word tempura refers to the technique of battering and frying. However, originally the Japanese fried food without batter. Portuguese influences changed that.
The background to tempura
Originally Japanese deep-fried food was fried without batter or breadcrumbs. At the end of the 16th century, merchants in the Nagasaki area acquired the method of making batter from Portuguese missionaries. They made a sort of fritter from batter using flour, eggs, sugar, salt and sake, and deep-fried it in lard. The result? A heavy, stodgy food.
In the 17th century, tempura evolved. With the emergence of the food stall culture in the Tokyo bay area, there was a movement away from the heavier fritter style, to a batter using flour, eggs and water only. This was done to retain the delicate taste of the seafood used. The batter was only mixed minimally in cold water, to avoid the “glue-like” consistency that comes from over-mixing. The result was the crispy texture of tempura we know today.
The name tempura
For Portuguese missionaries making the fritters became a way to fulfill abstinence and fasting requirements for Catholics at Lent. Tempura is derived from the Latin: quatuor tempora.
Making tempura batter now
Tempura batter is made from chilled water, flour and eggs. The trick is not to over-mix the batter. According to one article I read, there are a couple of ingredients that can help keep the batter light and not too “gluey”. These techniques don’t seem very Japanese to me – but hey – if they work …?
The end goal is to achieve a light batter that passes the “crunch” test. Here area a couple of techniques proposed:
- use very cold, sparkling water in the batter – apparently the bubbles help to keep the batter light, and the coldness helps the batter “adhere” to the food
- add vodka to the water – the alcohol helps prevent the formation of gluten
- cook using hot oil (190-195 °C) – brief immersions at higher temperatures cooks the food in less time
Will you be making tempura at home?
I don’t deep fry food myself at home, so I am unlikely to start having tempura on our regular menu. I would prefer to eat this meal out – but it is good to know how to recognise good tempura when you see it – or rather “crunch it”. How about you?