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.
Of all the little rituals and practices involved in Japanese dining, my favourite is associated with preparing the sauce that accompanies crispy, deep fried pork at nearly all good tonkatsu restaurants. The sound of a wooden surikogi grinding against the coarse, ribbed ceramic suribachi evokes images of craftsmen and traditions long lost to history; the nutty aroma of the sesame seeds pulverised between stick and bowl rise to meet your nose and do just as much to ready your appetite as the smell of the meat itself. You dampen the crumbly powdered seeds with a ladle or two of tangy sōsu from a dark glazed pot, swirl it briefly with a stroke of your surikogi, then plunge a scalding hot nugget of pork into the marbled sauce on its way towards your mouth. The simple but delicate act of adjusting the flavour of the sauce you’re about to eat creates an emotional connection to the food that makes you far more appreciative of it; it no longer feels like a quick bite to eat, it’s a feast that you’ve helped to make in some small way. Each mouthful feels more satisfying and precious than it would have if you’d been served the seeds ready ground- and the flavour, far greater still.
Of course, this act of grinding your own seeds isn’t the only element that makes a tonkatsu meal so enticing; the incredibly hot, crisply crumbed, juicy fried pork steaks; the mountain of crunchy, cooling shredded cabbage (which normally comes with unlimited refills); the sticky, perfectly cooked blend of rice and barley mounded up in your bowl; and the ability to choose between the fattier more flavourful rosu and the tender and cleaner tasting hire cuts of pork all help make it one of our favourite meals to eat in Japan.
You can follow the same technique described below with a flattened out chicken breast to make torikatsu, a variation of tonkatsu which has become even more popular in the UK than the original, and frequently served with karē sauce.
An izakaya staple and to my mind one of the most elegant ways to serve beancurd, agedashi tofu is in essence a very simple recipe- smooth, delicate kinugoshi silken tofu is dusted in potato starch, deep fried and served in a bowl of seasoned dashi broth. A light, crisp shell gives way to a gently yielding, creamy, custard-like texture that melts in your mouth while the katakuriko gives the agedashi its distinctive soft, stretchy, jelly-like coating when immersed in the sweet, smoky soup. The two main elements of the dish are further enhanced by a selection of toppings- normally fresh spring onions, spicy daikon oroshi, savoury katsuobushi flakes and intensely powerful grated ginger- but you can also add chopped shiso leaves, shredded sheets of nori seaweed or a citrussy chilli kick from some shichimi togarashi.
Documented as early as the 1780s in Ka Hitsujun’s Tofu Hyakuchin- an immensely popular Edo period book on tofu- the clean, harmonious flavours and ease of preparation have helped keep this unassuming, humble looking dish a favourite across all of Japan, and one that we make a beeline for whenever we see it on a restaurant menu. The simplicity of the recipe allows each component to really shine and since they have nothing to hide behind you want to use the best quality ingredients you can find, make them all memorable and you’ll have a beautifully balanced bowl of food.