What Is Tempura & How Is It Made?
If you’re a frequent guest at Japanese restaurants, you’ve probably had tempura before. Tempura is often found in the appetizer section and can also be a topping for a noodle dish, like soba or udon.
Tempura is one of Japan’s most popular food items and can be made using various base ingredients, from shrimp and fish to vegetables and chicken.
In this article, we’ll break down everything about this delicious dish and how to make it yourself!
What Is Tempura?
Tempura is a typical Japanese dish, not a specific ingredient. Introduced to Nagasaki by Portuguese missionaries, the word tempura is believed to derive from “Têmporas,” which refer to The Ember Days, the period of Christian holy days in which no meat is consumed.
Tempura is also known as an “Edo Delicacy.”
Centered around the Edo castle, the city of Edo was the capital of Japan from 1603 until 1868, when it was renamed “Tokyo.” As you may guess, tempura is especially popular in the Tokyo prefecture, and a staple of modern Japanese cuisine found everywhere from high-end restaurants to street markets.
So, what exactly is tempura itself?
It’s a dish consisting of a base ingredient that has been deep-fried in batter. This base ingredient can be many different foods, such as seafood, chicken, seaweed, and vegetables like sweet potatoes, squash, shiitake mushrooms, and eggplant.
Because of this, there is plenty of variety in how tempura will taste. But the one constant that separates tempura from other fried foods is the batter.
What Is Tempura Batter?
We use tempura batter to glaze the base ingredient before cooking it on the fryer. When making fried foods, coating your base in the batter is essential because it allows the food to retain moisture and create a crispy and tasty shell.
And while plenty of fried foods use batters, tempura batter is very different.
How Does Tempura Batter Differ From Conventional Batter?
Tempura batter is made from three key ingredients: flour, egg, and cold water.
The main difference between tempura batter and conventional batter is that tempura batter uses significantly less oil and no breadcrumbs. With Tempura batter, you’ll get a delicate, crispy result that is lighter than conventional batter.
How Is Tempura Made?
While tempura may seem like one of those “restaurant-only” dishes, it’s quite easy to make at home with the correct ingredients and supplies. And while Japanese chefs may spend years perfecting the art of tempura frying, you can do a decent job with the tools you already have at home!
Preparing the Batter
First, you need to prepare your batter. The only ingredients you’ll need are:
- Ice cold water
You’ll want your mixture to be as cold as possible, so putting your flour and mixing bowl in the fridge beforehand is a nice touch. Then, combine the ingredients in a large bowl using a pair of chopsticks at a ratio of 1:1.
You will want the batter looking a little lumpy, and it’s important not to overmix the batter. Overmixing could affect the tempura’s texture, and you will not achieve the light and airy texture found in tempura.
Gathering Extra Ingredients
Next, it’s time to gather ingredients for the base of your tempura. You can experiment with many different bases to discover which you prefer. Seafood and vegetables are typical ingredients you’ll find in tempura.
Here’s a list of some popular base ingredients for tempura:
- Fish, such as Whiting, Ayu (sweetfish), and Halibut
- Vegetables, such as sweet potato, eggplant, squash, carrots, onions
Don’t be afraid to try a few different ingredients as your base. Just keep in mind, the frying process may change depending on what you’re frying.
Prepping the Oil
Choose the right oil to fry your tempura. You’ll want to fry using an oil with a high smoke point.
The smoke point is the temperature at which the oil starts smoking. This means the oil is burning, and while that isn’t always bad, it can release chemicals that will cause your food to taste burnt or bitter… which is not as tasty!
For frying, using oils with high smoke points is preferred to avoid that burnt taste. Oils with high smoke points include canola oil (400℉), vegetable oil (400℉), refined coconut oil (450℉), peanut oil (450℉), safflower oil (510℉), and more. It may be helpful to know that the smoke point for butter is only 250℉.
The healthiest oils are vegetable oil and olive oil, which are high in monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats. So, if you’re trying to keep your fried food as healthy as possible, we recommend going with those.
But, extra virgin olive oil has a smoke point of only 275 to 325 degrees, so if you want to use olive oil, it would be better to use a refined olive oil for that higher smoke point.
Once you’ve chosen an oil, fill a medium-sized pot about halfway full with oil so that your tempura can be submerged about one inch. Heat oil to about 375 degrees Fahrenheit. One way to check if the oil is hot enough is to stick a wooden spoon and see if it has bubbles. If bubbles form around your wooden spoon, your oil is ready for frying.
It’s time to deep fry your tempura pieces to perfection. First, take your base ingredient, and dip it into flour or potato starch. This will help the batter stick to the base. Next, dunk the ingredients in your batter, and then drop the tempura into your heated oil to fry.
The cooking time and temperature depend on whether you are using vegetables, meat, or seafood. Vegetables will cook at a slightly lower temperature than meat and seafood, but if you’re cooking both, 375 is a suitable temperature to use.
Each piece should be left to fry for two to five minutes, or until golden, before removing it from the oil.
Ah, the best step in the process! Tempura is best enjoyed with a dipping sauce. Tentsuyu is the standard tempura dipping sauce, but soy sauce or ponzu sauce will also work.
Tempura can be served either on its own or with a side dish.
We recommend pairing your tempura with some rice, some soba noodles, or a bowl of soup. No matter the meal, it’s sure to hit the spot. Be sure to serve your tempura immediately, as the tempura will lose its crispiness as it cools down.
What Are the Most Common Types of Tempura?
Shrimp tempura, also known as Ebi tempura, is one of Japan’s most popular types of tempura. Often served over noodles (soba or udon), you can add soy sauce or a little bit of salt for maximum taste!
You can also make a specific tempura dish with one kind of vegetables. For example, nasu tempura (eggplant), kabocha (squash), ninjin (carrot), and shiso (perilla) all are specific types of tempura that can be made using their own unique recipes.
A favorite in the Oita prefecture, chicken tempura (called Toriten in Japan) isn’t as popular as shrimp and veggies, but it is just as delicious.
Not to be confused with another popular Japanese fried chicken dish called karaage, also invented in Oita. Unlike tempura, karaage requires seasoning before frying.
If you love sushi, you’ve probably already tried tempura rolls. Tempura sushi is simply sushi where the ingredients (like shrimp) have been deep-fried. Because they don’t contain raw fish, tempura sushi rolls might be a bit more approachable for beginners in Japanese cuisine to make at home.
No matter what foods you prefer, tempura is a dish everyone can enjoy. Dating back to the 17th century, it feels both traditional and modern, and along with food like sushi, it is one of the most popular Japanese dishes in the world.
You don’t have to live in Tokyo to cook the foods you enjoy. All it takes is to find the right ingredients, tie on your best apron, and follow your favorite recipes.
For those of us craving tempura, Umamicart can help us bring those flavors to our kitchens, no matter where that might be.