What is tempura?
One of representative Japanese dishes.
Tempura is a dish prepared by coating ingredients such as vegetables and seafood with a mixture of eggs, water, and flour, then frying these with oil. Although it is a food that can be ordered by itself in specialty restaurants, it is often eaten as the main dish of a teishoku lunch set (teishoku: a common meal service format in which, rice, soup, and pickles are served with a main dish in a set) or a side dish to soba. Ingredients themselves are rarely seasoned. After frying, tempura is eaten with dipping sauce (tentsuyu: made by dashi soup stock and soy sauce). Grated ginger and/or daikon radish are often mixed in tentsuyu.
Other eating methods include sprinkling salt or putting soy sauce on tempura. Some restaurants provide salt and soy sauce prepared on their own. Tendon is a typical dish that uses tempura. In this dish, tempura dipped in tentsuyu is placed on top of the rice. Restaurants that specialize in tendon, such as Tenya, at times provide tendon in a form that can be eaten conveniently as a Japanese fast food.
Ingredients used in tempura can vary widely. Principally, vegetables such as pumpkins, eggplants, and sweet potatoes, seafood such as shrimps, squids, and white fish, and mushrooms such as maitake and shiitake are used. At the same time, there are instances when unusual ingredients, such as ice cream, are used. Sometimes restaurants specializing in tempura have rules specific to serving tempura. Essentially those with mild flavors are placed in the front, and those with strong flavors at the back. This arrangement is made so that the customers can enjoy tempura even more by eating from the front.
The origin of tempura can be found in the Edo period (1603-1868).
To begin with, fried food itself is a culture that came from outside of Japan. Although the origin of the current form of tempura is not certain, it is believed that tempura originated on food carts. This is because when the distribution of goods became widespread during the Edo period, food from different parts of Japan came to be gathered in Edo (former name of Tokyo). As a result, oil, which used to be a luxury item, became accessible to commoners as well. Afterward, tempura became more common and spread to the rest of Japan. Restaurants specializing in tempura started to appear in the late Edo period, with tempura being provided as a high-end food, rather than as a food for the general public.
There are also several theories as to where the name tempura came from. One theory is that the current name of tempura became established based on a word introduced by Portuguese people that came to Nagasaki.
In order to deliciously cook tempura, not only the taste of ingredients, but the batter that coats the ingredients also becomes the key. The requirement of delicious tempura is that it is crunchy and has a light texture after it’s been fried in oil. In order to achieve this, using cold water in batter and avoid over-mixing it will help produce light, crispier batter.
As for oil for frying, vegetable oil such as corn oil, olive oil, canola oil, soy oil, and sesame oil is used. The stickiness can be reduced by quickly frying at a high temperature.
The preparation of the ingredients is a key factor. With ingredients such as seafood that has a lot of moisture, it needs to be ensured that moisture does not get into the oil. Skin need to be scored with a knife for ingredients that are prone to hardening. In order for the batter and its contents to be fried equally, several steps are taken, such as cooking beforehand the ingredients inside the batter.
As described above, the cooking method varies depending on the ingredient. Tempura is a dish that requires many fine skills to cook, such as the adjustment of batter that wraps the ingredient, the frying method of tempura, the temperature of oil, and the types of oil. These factors will greatly influence the quality of tempura cooked. Chefs who make tempura have their own adherence to such fine adjustments, creating tempura peculiar to their restaurants. As such, even though tempura may seem like a simple dish to prepare, it is a dish that requires fine adjustment. Thus, this matches with the meticulous nature of Japanese people. Perhaps this is why tempura has developed to the extent that it became a dish that represents Japan.
If you sit at the counter seat in a tempura specialty restaurant, you can watch tempura being fried. Witnessing this skill can be fun.
There are regional differences in the diversity of ingredients used.
Although the format of frying by coating the ingredients with batter does not essentially change, various different ingredients are used depending on the region. In Osaka, beni-shoga is used. Beni-shoga is made from ginger colored red and pickled in umezu (the liquid produced after umeboshi plums have been pickled).In the Fukushima region, steamed bean-jam bun (manju; a traditional sweet made by putting bean-jam inside of a casing made with flour, which is then steamed) is eaten when there are guests or during festivities are made into tempura.
In a dish called Nagasaki tempura, the batter is seasoned with sugar, unlike the ordinary tempura where batter is not seasoned with anything. After it has been fried, it is eaten without any condiment. The batter itself adopts a slightly sticky texture, making it a filling dish. Furthermore, since it tastes a little sweet unlike regular tempura, you can enjoy tempura with a difference.
A food that uses tempura includes tenmusu from Aichi prefecture. A tempura-fried shrimp is wrapped in rice and is served after being shaped into an onigiri rice ball. It is said that this food originated after being provided as a food for restaurant employees in Mie prefecture.
Generally, the ingredients for tempura are mainly vegetables and seafood mentioned above, and meat is rarely used. Given this state, one type of tempura that is famous for using meat is Toriten in Oita. Chicken is extremely popular in Oita, with the prefecture having the highest chicken consumption volume in Japan. Although chicken tempura is rarely seen in other prefectures, it can be found in various places within Oita, such as restaurants, coffee shops, Chinese restaurants, and bento shops.
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