Tasty Tempura
Frying can be light and delicate when done the Asian way.

 
Tempua-battered food fries up light.
Traditional Japanese cooking is much simpler than that of the Western world. It is an uncomplicated way of cooking; one that emphasizes the natural taste of foods fresh from land or sea. Tempura is a classic example of this cuisine and is relished worldwide in the form of lightly battered and fried pieces of seafood or vegetables.

Although tempura did not originate in Japan, having been brought to the island nation by Portuguese missionaries, it is the Japanese who have perfected it and elevated it to an art form.

The key to great tempura lies in the ingredients and proper technique. Always use high-quality fresh ingredients whose natural flavors will be only slightly accented by cooking. Maintaining the correct heat is crucial in order to produce a golden, crispy morsel with a distinct snap and bite.

Oil temperature will vary depending on what you are cooking and the size of the ingredients, but a good all-purpose temperature is between 375 and 390 degrees.  Tempura chefs are said to fry by sound rather than sight, listening for the point at which the water has been cooked out of the batter and the ingredients. For home chefs, fry 1-3 minutes until the coating is slightly golden.

A lacy, golden-fried coating rests in the preparation of the batter. Make just before frying. Allowing batter to stand will cause it to be heavy and lose its delicacy. Mix batter only slightly, leaving lumps and a floury ring in your bowl, to achieve the gossamer web of crust that defines good tempura. Master tempura chefs can tell the difference between the work of a five-year apprentice and a 20-year veteran, so delicate and intricate are the processes at work. These recipes are uncomplicated and straightforward but may require practice.

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RECIPES

Assorted Tempura
(serves 4)

 4     raw king prawns or 8 raw large shrimp, peeled and deveined
 4     small scallops or fillets of flounder (or any white fish), cut into 1- to 2-inch pieces
 4-8  shiitake or button mushrooms, stems trimmed and cut in half if large
 8     asparagus tips, about 2 inches long
 
Batter
 1         egg
 1         cup ice-cold water
 1 1/2   cups cake flour (or all-purpose), sifted
 1 to 4  cups vegetable oil for frying

 

CHEF’S TIPS

* Make the batter ultra-light by chilling the flour in the refrigerator overnight before mixing it with the ice-cold water.

 

* To make tempura with an onion, cut it in half from root to stem end. Lay it flat-side-down, trim the ends off, and insert a line of toothpicks about a half-inch apart down the center. Cut between the toothpicks to keep the onion from falling apart. Batter and fry with toothpicks in place, but remove before serving.

 

* Tempura restaurants and chefs add a hint of smoky nuttiness by cutting their frying oil with sesame oil (use a 5 to 1 ratio).

After preparing the ingredients, dry them with paper towels to ensure that the batter sticks evenly. In a large sauce pot or Dutch oven over medium heat, heat oil (enough to cover the tempura pieces by 1 inch) to 375 degrees. Adjust heat if necessary to maintain temperature. In a mixing bowl, lightly beat the egg. Gently mix in water (without ice). Add sifted flour all at once and stroke a few times with chopsticks or a fork until loosely combined. Batter should be lumpy, not smooth and velvety. Test the oil heat by dropping in a small bit of batter; it should descend slightly beneath the oil then rise to the surface bubbling gently around the edges. Use fingers to dip ingredients into batter. Allow excess to drip off, then gently place in oil. Cook several pieces at a time, but do not overcrowd the pan. Cook for about 3 minutes, turning periodically to cook evenly. Remove the tempura from oil, briefly drain on paper towels, and serve immediately with dipping sauce.

 

Tentsuyu (dipping sauce)
This sauce traditionally accompanies tempura and is said to wash away any excess oil that may remain in the batter.

 1     cup dashi, available in Asian markets (if not available, use chicken broth with a little fish sauce)
 1/3  cup mirin
 1/3  cup light soy sauce
 1     cup daikon radish, grated
 2     teaspoons fresh ginger, finely grated

Mix ingredients together and serve.

 

Kakiage
These fritters are a little more filling than tempura and make for a wonderful main course.
(serves 4)

 1/2  pound scallops or shrimp, peeled and deveined
 1     onion, fine julienne
 1     carrot, fine julienne
 1     recipe tempura batter
        Vegetable oil for frying

 
In a large sauce pot or Dutch oven over medium heat, heat oil (enough to cover tempura pieces by 1 inch) to 375 degrees. Adjust heat if necessary to maintain temperature. Prepare tempura batter.  Test the heat of your frying oil by dropping in a small bit of batter; it should descend slightly beneath the oil, then rise to the surface, bubbling gently around the edges. Gently mix about 1 tablespoon of each ingredient in batter, coating well. With a spoon, remove ingredients and slip fritter into oil. Cook several pieces at a time, but do not overcrowd the pan. Cook for about 3 minutes, periodically submerging it under the oil to cook all sides evenly. Remove from oil, briefly drain on paper towels, and serve immediately with dipping sauce.

 

Lotus Salad
This Japanese-style salad is simple and elegant with a sweet-tart flavor and beautiful colors.
(serves 4)

 1/3 to 1/2  pound fresh lotus root, washed and peeled
 1               teaspoon rice vinegar
 4               small or 2 large umeboshi (Japanese pickled plums)
 1               teaspoon soy sauce
 1               teaspoon sugar
 4               green onions, tops only, thinly sliced at an angle

 
Over medium-high heat, bring a salted pot of water to boil. Slice lotus root into 1/8-inch thick rounds. Add vinegar and lotus and simmer until transparent and tender but still crisp, about 2 minutes. Drain, rinse under cold water, and pat dry with paper towels. Chill.

Slice open umeboshi plums and discard pits. In small bowl mash plums into a paste with fork. Add soy sauce and sugar and mix to combine, until sugar is dissolved. Toss chilled lotus slices in plum dressing to coat. Serve in individual bowls and sprinkle with green onion slices.

Note: Subsitute 1/4 cup plum preserves plus one teaspoon rice vinegar for umeboshi.

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TERMS OF THE TRADE

Tentsuyu
Sauce usually served with tempura; a mellow combination of dashi, mirin, and soy sauce, often accompanied by daikon

Dashi
A fish stock made with dried bonito tuna and sea kelp flakes, used in a variety of Japanese dishes

Mirin
Sweet wine made from glutinous rice

Shiso
Leaves of green, aromatic herbs used throughout Japanese cooking, in the same family as basil and mint

Daikon
Large Asian radish with a sweet flavor, crunchy texture, and creamy color

Kakiage
Tempura with several ingredients fried together, such as prawns with shredded vegetables