Article updated on May 22, 2020
Text & photos: Claire Lessiau & Marcella van Alphen
Tsunahachi in Shinjuku has been serving one of the finest tempura (天ぷら) in Tokyo for almost a century. In a country where excellence is the rule, that does mean something! Let’s explore the world of tempura in Japan!
If you like… anything deep-fried,
…you will love tempura!
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A Portuguese dish turned Japanese specialty!
Tempura is the Japanese way of dipping ingredients into a light batter and deep frying them – more specifically seafood and vegetables.
This technique was imported by the Portuguese in the 16th century in Nagasaki. As prescribed for Catholics, Spanish and Portuguese missionaries were fasting four times a year during the Ember Days (in Latin “quatuor anni tempora“), replacing red meat by fish and vegetables they would batter and deep fry. This is the most plausible explanation for the etymology of the word and cooking technique.
The Japanese adapted the recipe to their constraints: in houses made of wood and paper, deep frying inside was forbidden, and tempura was cooked only at yatai. These outdoor food stalls, often by fish markets, would propose seafood dipped in a light, unflavoured and minimally mixed cold batter, giving this crispy texture to the tempura. As the batter was unflavoured, dips and salts were developed. Frying the ingredient shortly, flavours and crunchiness were preserved, creating the “Tokyo style” tempura.
Since then, tempura have moved from the fast-food favourite to upscale tempura-ya restaurants.
How to eat tempura?
The plate is filled several times: the chef respects the flavours by going crescendo as he serves, carefully respecting cooking times: shrimps, calamari, fish, lotus flower roots, eggplants…
Don’t wait! Once a tempura dish is on the plate, dip it in tentsuyu, a brown and salty dipping sauce in which a bit of graded radish (daikon) can be added. In tempura-ya, flavoured salts are also brought to the table and can be sprinkled alternatively: sea, matcha, or shrimp salt. Then, eat it while it is still hot and fresh out of the fritter.
Where to savour tempura?
As in Tsunahachi, tempura can be enjoyed as a meal by itself in any tempura-ya. They tend to be upscale specialised restaurants. As every piece of tempura is cooked one by one respecting its specific cooking time, in rather large restaurants, several chefs man various bars to attend to a small number of patrons: the best seat is at the bar, close to the cooks, to see the chef prepare small batches of batter with his chopsticks, deep fry the ingredients one by one, and scoop out the small lumps of batter left in the vegetable cooking oil.
The more low-key and day-to-day version is the tendon (or tempura rice bowl) in which seasoned tempura are served on top of rice. Tempura also often complement a main dish, such as soba noodles.
You have got to try it!
Chefs tend to favour seasonal ingredients, so the list of seafood and vegetable options can vary based on market availability. However, here are a couple of must-tries:
- Egg yolk: make sure to eat it in one bite. The egg is soft boiled and melts into one’s mouth after the crispy tempura batter shell is broken.
- Ice cream: this is not traditional, and is more the let’s-conquer-the-USA version of tempura. Some even think it should not be served in proper tempura-ya. Just imagine the ice cream softly melting with the crunchy batter and the sensation of hot fried dough, together with ice-cold cream… Phenomenal!
Where to enjoy tempura in Japan: Tsunahachi in Shinjuku, Tokyo. Elsewhere, indulge yourself & experience a tempura-ya: sit at the counter and observe the chef cook every piece while you savour!
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