My first introduction to Japanese food was at a charming restaurant in Manhattan. The atmosphere was very enchanting; you sat on cushions on the floor at a very low table. My host ordered in Japanese and I didn’t know what I was getting. When it arrived I was truly amazed at the platter. Tempura that was exquisite in appearance, absolutely breathtaking; thinly sliced vegetables and shrimp, each encapsulated in a clean, crisp, transparent breading that was all so beautifully arranged on the platter to be appealing as a lover’s friendship.
I remember that first encounter with tempura to this day. The tempura technique, first brought to Japan by Portuguese missionaries in the 16th century, would surely delight anyone who enjoys “fish and chips” or “fritto misto” and such
I think the simple flour, egg and liquid batter makes a good tempura. Unlike when making bread, tempura batter requires minimal gluten, so the batter is mixed quickly, leaving lumps in the mixture. The very cold, lumpy batter ensures a peerless, crisp, absolutely delectable tempura. Thinly sliced vegetables or calamari rings; it’s all good when cooked tempura style.
Since crisp is the name of the game with tempura, people often fiddle with the batter recipe trying to “improve “ it. Some people make use of “rice flour” and a multitude of other starches, but the most interesting concept I have seen is a technique first made known by the Japanese first lady, Miyuki Hatoyama, wife of Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama. Madam first lady has employed a whisky batter that worked quite well for that very crisp tempura. That’s right, no other liquid was used, just whisky. It did indeed produce a crisp product, but still, there was that “whisky” aftertaste. Some culinary scientist experimented with vodka and voila; ultra-crisp tempura with a slight, almost absent vodka taste was born. Alcohol reportedly dissolves portions of the gluten proteins to keep the crust from getting chewy, and since it boils off faster than water, the batter crisps up better.
But you can make a great tempura without alcohol by remembering:
- Use ice cold water or sparkling water and mix the batter right before serving
- Stir briefly to barely incorporate the blend, lumps are perfectly fine
Let’s make a Shrimp Tempura with a nice dipping sauce to compliment the crispy coating. You can omit the shrimp and cook any vegetable you desire.
1 lb (500g) shelled and deveined large shrimp
1 medium sized sweet potato, peeled and sliced thinly (about ¼ inch or 5mm thick)
1 small tender eggplant, sliced thinly length-wise as for sweet potato
10 tender snow peas
10 mushrooms, sliced as for sweet potato
1 onion, sliced into rings
10 tender green beans (string beans) cut into 2” or 5cm lengths
Clean vegetable oil for deep-frying
You can butterfly the shrimp or not, leave the tails on. Please make sure the shrimp and the vegetables are DRY before you batter and fry them. You can put all on a platter and refrigerate covered to keep cold while you get ready.
DIPPING SAUCE RECIPE
You can make a simple dipping sauce with soy sauce, mirin or sherry wine and horseradish mixed together.
1-cup (8 fluid ounces, 250ml) ice water (very important)
1 cup (2 ounces, 60g) all purpose flour, sifted
Heat your frying oil to 350F (180C)
Have your oil hot and ready firstly, because you want to be frying as soon as the batter is mixed.
Have a draining rack or paper towel in place. As soon as the tempuras are cooked they should be drained and than consumed, you can’t hold them long.
Put the ice water into a bowl. Add the egg and beat. Add the sifted flour and stir with a fork just to combine, don’t worry about lumps. You do not want to over mix. If you run out of batter make more the same way. Do not store batter, as soon as it settles you must discard it.
With the frying oil ready, dip shrimp and/or vegetables into batter one at a time and fry a few pieces until golden, about 3 minutes (don’t overcrowd the oil). Although you want to be cautious with hot oil, the batter on your fingertips will help to insulate the skin from burns as you place the food atop the oil, in the event you get too close.
Drain and serve immediately. A deep fryer with a basket is good. The basket should be in the fryer, and then add the vegetables singly. When the food is golden lift out.
All diners get a small bowl of sauce. I’ve seen many people forego the dipping sauce and just salt their tempura.
Frying is very quick and very satisfying, and done right, does not inordinately make the meal unhealthy. Try it, especially when you have a crowd over, as the cooking is quick.