With a light, crispy, oil-free coating enveloping a perfectly cooked and succulent piece of seafood or vegetable, tenpura (also written tempura) is considered a quintessentially Japanese food. Both the word and the dish, however, are almost certainly of foreign origin. The source: Spanish and Portuguese missionaries called nanbanjin (southern barbarians) who came to Japan to convert the heathen masses toward the close of the sixteenth century. Prohibited from consuming meat on Fridays, they substituted batter-fried fish.
There are several theories on where the name came from. Templo, meaning temple or church in Spanish, and tempero, which in Portuguese means cooking, are two possible roots. The Chinese characters can also be read as follows: ten meaning up, pu for flour, and ra for thin silk, the latter most likely a reference to the thin coating of batter.
By the middle of the Edo era (1603-1867), tenpura, inexpensive and considered relatively low-class, was a popular offering at open-air food stalls. Only in recent years has the dish risen in both price and public esteem to its exalted culinary status in high-class establishments. With a little preparation and practice, it is surprisingly easy to make equally good tenpura at home. Keep the oil at a constant temperature; use ice-cold water to make the batter; and, perhaps most important of all, leave the batter lumpy.
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- 8 medium or 4 large shrimp washed, shelled, and deveined, with tails slightly trimmed
- 4 small kisu Japanese whiting fillets (or other small white-fleshed fish), washed and with tails left intact
- 4 fresh shiitake mushrooms trimmed
- 4 thick rounds of sweet potato peeled
- 4 shiso perilla leaves, washed and patted dry
- 2 Japanese eggplants trimmed and halved lengthwise, with skin lightly scored for quicker frying
- 4 string beans trimmed and halved lengthwise
- Sesame oil and vegetable oil for deep-frying half and half is best
- Dipping Sauce:
- 1 cup dashi fish stock
- ¼ cup low-sodium soy sauce
- ¼ cup mirin sweet sake
- ¼ cup sake
- Dash of salt
- 1 cup daikon radish peeled, grated, and drained
- 4 teaspoons fresh ginger peeled & grated
- Lemon wedges & coarse salt optional
- Batter: Double quantity if necessary
- 1 large egg
- 1 cup ice water
- 1 cup all-purpose white flour sifted
Prepare the shrimp and other items as instructed above, then place them on a large plate. Bring the dipping sauce ingredients to a boil in a pan, stirring well; remove from heat and pour into four small serving bowls. Let cool. Put the daikon radish, ginger, and lemon (if used) in separate bowls. Prepare a rack for draining the tenpura, and line your serving plates with paper napkins.
While you are heating the oil in a wok or other large large, deep-sided pot, lightly mix the egg and ice water in a bowl. Add the flour all at once, stirring only briefly with chopsticks or a fork to create a lumpy, nonsticky batter. Place the bowl of batter in a large bowl filled with ice water near the stove. When a dab of batter is dropped into the oil and rises to the surface and sizzles, the oil is ready.
Fry the fish first. Dip them briefly in the batter and then drop into the oil, use cooking chopsticks to turn them rapidly.
(To preserve their delicate flavor, the perilla leaves should be dipped on their "back" side only.) Then proceed with the other items. If space permits, fry all similar items together. The tenpura is ready when it turns golden brown and floats. I like to drain tenpura using a cooling rack placed over a cookie sheet for easy clean up.
Remove any excess fried batter with a slotted spoon.
Tenpura should be served immediately and eaten piping hot. It could also be made at the dining room table by the guests, using fondue pots. Dip into the sauce, add grated radish and ginger as desired, or sprinkle with lemon and dip lightly in salt.