One of the most wide-spread and well recognised of all Japanese foods is ebiten, or tempura prawns. Go to any Japanese restaurant around the world and you’ll find these battered delights served either on their own, sitting atop a bowl of noodles or spread seductively across a bed of rice as tendon; when they appear on the conveyor belt at a sushiya they never make it all the way round the circuit, being plucked off deftly by the hands of the hungry punters lucky enough to be seated at the start of the track. As deliciously simple as these deep fried prawns are, and they truly are- being one of the most delightful snacks available- they are only the starting point, the figurehead at the prow of the tempura ship, there are much more varied, maybe even greater tempura to be found if you’re willing to look further afield. Succulent toriten fried chicken from Kyushu, ikaten squid from Hokkaido, bird’s-nest-like mixed vegetable kakiage fritters, fish tempura from the Seto inland sea and perhaps the most traditional- yasai, or vegetable tempura.
When sixteenth century Portuguese traders were at their most prominent, and inadvertently spreading their cuisine across most of Asia, it was their deep fried foods that took hold in Japan, particularly a festival dish called Peixinhos da Horta, ‘little fish of the garden’. These battered and fried green beans were eaten on holy days when consuming fish or meat was forbidden, and provided a substantial alternative that was both economical and nutritious; although their likeness to fish is debatable, they remain a Portuguese favourite to this day. The Japanese took these battered mouthfuls and improved upon them, making the coating lighter and crispier, experimenting with more fillings, sauces to dip them into, and refining the whole process into the culinary art form that we know today. Yasai tempura holds the torch as the closest remaining relative of this venerable cooking technique; a fine, lacy covering of crisp, pale blond batter, encapsulating a steaming hot, perfectly cooked morsel of sweet, nutty kabocha or maybe a smooth, meltingly creamy slice of aubergine or a spicy, almost minty shiso leaf. As with all Japanese food, the vegetables used change with the seasons, the airy batter allowing the flavours of the fillings to concentrate as they steam within their protective shells and paint a picture of the subtly changing environment outside.
The key to making successful tempura at home is in the temperature of the batter- keep all your batter ingredients as cold as possible, and always make the batter immediately before you fry your ingredients to prevent the gluten from developing and giving an undesirably chewy texture.
- 600g assorted vegetables (we used sweet potato, kabocha, aubergine, lotus root and shiso leaves)
- 110g plain flour
- 50g rice flour
- 1/2 tsp baking powder
- 1 egg
- 260ml ice-cold water
- Oil for frying
- Peel the skin off the lotus root, then cut all the vegetables into large slices- they should be about 0.5cm thick so they cook through quickly. Drop them into a large bowl of water with one tablespoon of vinegar added to prevent them from going brown.
- Half fill a large saucepan with cooking oil and place it on a medium heat- it needs to reach around 200°C, but bring it to temperature slowly. Preheat the oven to 150°C and prepare an oven tray with a rack to keep the fried tempura warm.
- Take the vegetables out of the acidulated water and dry well with kitchen towel, then dust all the pieces with rice flour, ready to be coated with the batter.
- Add the egg to a large bowl and lightly whisk before pouring in the ice-cold water and mixing thoroughly. Sift the flours and baking powder into the liquid ingredients and stir very lightly with a pair of chopsticks, the perfect batter will still have some clusters of unmixed flour floating on the surface which helps keep the coating crisp and delicate.
- When the oil has reached 200°C, dip the flour-coated vegetable pieces into the batter one at a time, then cook each piece in the hot oil for around two minutes, flipping over halfway, until the batter has cooked to a light golden brown. Remove the tempura from the oil and place on the rack in the oven, then continue to cook the rest of the vegetables in the same way.
- When all of the tempura is cooked, serve immediately with the tentsuyu dipping sauce and a bowl of the flavoured salt for sprinkling over the top of the pieces.
Tentsuyu dipping sauce ingredients.
- 200ml dashi
- 50ml soy sauce
- 50ml mirin
- Bring the dashi to a simmer in a small saucepan over a low heat; add the soy sauce and mirin and cook for a further minute or so until the liquid comes back up to a simmer. Allow the dipping sauce to cool down slightly before pouring into four serving dishes.
Tempura salt ingredients.
- 3 teaspoons fine sea salt
- 1 teaspoon sanshō pepper
- 1 teaspoon white pepper
- 1 teaspoon dried yuzu or lemon peel powder
- Mix all the ingredients together in a bowl ensuring they are evenly combined and everything is distributed well throughout the salt. Divide between four small serving dishes.
Serves 4 people.