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japanese food, tempura, what is in tempura

What Is in Tempura? Unraveling the Secrets of this Iconic Japanese Dish

Anna Ayvazyan

Anna Ayvazyan

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Tempura shrimp on a plate.

People prepare tempura by lightly battering seafood or vegetables in flour and then deep frying them in oil and fat. Typically, the batter consists of flour, egg, and water. However, different regions have their ways of making the batter.

The oil used in frying the tempura significantly affects the final dish. Vegetable oils tend to give it a blonde color. In comparison, sesame oils give the dish more of a golden color. Afterward, it comes with salt, wasabi, and a dipping sauce. Some restaurants may also serve fried shrimp with matcha (green tea) powder. 

A plate of fish and shrimp tempura with chopsticks.
This dish originally came from Portugal. Image via Shutterstock

People typically make the dipping sauce using soy sauce, occasionally adding a hint of citrus flavor. Restaurants may refer to the citrus-tasting soy sauce as the “oroshi” style on their menus. The dipping sauces play a role in enhancing its flavor. It can be a standalone dish or served atop sushi, rice bowl, and noodle dishes.

History of Tempura

Historical records trace the origins of tempura back to the 1660s when Portuguese Catholic missionaries arrived and introduced the cooking technique of coating foods with flour and frying them. This cooking method was standard during Lent, as several Christian denominations forbade meat consumption. The term “tempura” comes from the Latin phrase “ad tempora cuaresme,” which translates to “in the time of Lent.”

A plate of tempura shrimp and vegetables.
Tempura comes from a Latin phrase related to Lent. Image via Shutterstock

The delicacy was first introduced around the commercial port city of Nagasaki. When the missionaries arrived, Japan had restricted access to only a few ports, including those used by Portugal, The Netherlands, and China. The fried dishes introduced during this time differed slightly from the modern version. As a result, two significant styles emerged: Nagasaki and Kamigata.

In Nagasaki, they made Nagasaki tempura by mixing sugar with flour and then combining the batter with sake before frying it in lard. This style is still prevalent in Nagasaki today. In the past, oil was scarce in Japan, so it was considered a luxury food. However, as its popularity grew, oil production in Japan increased. Different regions in Japan developed their way of making it, with the Kamigata style originating in western Japan.

A batch of fresh ingredients for frying food.
Some recipes call for sake batter. Image via Shutterstock

In Kamigata-style tempura, they prepared it differently compared to East Japan. In Osaka and Kyoto, they deep-fried the batter using sesame oil. Furthermore, due to the strong Buddhist influence in the region, they exclusively made the dish using vegetables. In East Japan, however, it was more common to use fish. As the early Edo period unfolded, it continued to gain popularity and became accessible at street stalls.

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When did the word “tempura” first appear in Japanese literature?

During the Edo period, Japanese literature introduced the term “tempura,” and authors recorded the first official recipe. In 1764, Kokubyaku Seimishu, a cooking book from that era, published the recipe. The recipe instructs cooks to coat a seabream filet with udon flour batter and fry it in oil. It forms the basis of today’s cuisine.

Deep frying shrimp with chopsticks.
The oil’s quality determines the final dish’s quality. Image via Shutterstock

During the Edo period, the dish was famous in Kanto and Kansai. However, it experienced a second wave of popularity following the Great Kanto Earthquake in 1923. Artisans who had lost their jobs due to the earthquake relocated to different regions of Japan, reintroducing tempura. Laborers considered tempura a nutritious food choice due to its high-calorie content.

However, the effects of the Pacific War caused tempura to once again be considered a luxury food due to the shortages of fats and oils. As a result, it could only be consumed during special occasions or by the wealthy. After the war, the Japanese economy recovered, and new cooking techniques were introduced.

A plate of fried fish and vegetables.
People eat this fried dish worldwide! Image via Shutterstock

In particular, the popularity of using seasonal vegetables and fish for making tempura increased. The consumption of oil and fat among the Japanese rapidly increased as the production of edible oils expanded. This increase made it easier for people to prepare tempura dishes at home, especially with the introduction of deep fryers and tempura flour sets in the late 1990s.

What are the different types of tempura?

Tempura offers a versatile canvas for various food items. It accommodates a wide range of ingredients, making it suitable for creating delectable dishes. Among the popular choices for tempura are shrimp, pumpkin, and egg, each delivering its unique flavors and textures.

Shrimp

Shrimp tempura, or ebi tempura, is Japan’s most well-known delicacy. Supermarkets and convenience stores offer it, and it’s a common topping for udon and soba noodles. In upscale restaurants, they even include the shrimp’s head, symbolizing the shrimp’s high quality.

Pumpkin

Lightly battered pumpkin slices.
Fried pumpkin has a nice, sweet flavor. Image via Shutterstock

In Japan, pumpkin tempura, known as kabocha tempura, frequently graces the tables as a delightful side dish. The cooking technique transforms the pumpkin into a crispy delight, retaining its sweetness. Sushi trains and noodle restaurants often offer this savory treat to their patrons.

Egg

Tamago or egg tempura tantalizes taste buds with deep-fried soft-boiled eggs. This cooking method preserves the eggs’ creamy interior while creating a crispy outer layer. Izakayas and sandwich shops commonly feature eggs as a delectable offering.

De3ep-fried egg.on a gray plate with salt on the side.
The deep-fried egg is one of the more creative versions of this delicacy! Image via Shutterstock

If you love fried food, tempura is worth trying in Japan. Not only is it healthy – but it also provides a new way to enjoy different foods you already love! What type do you want to try? Let us know in the comments below! 

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