No one knows for sure the origins of the Japanese word “tempura”, but one theory is my favorite.
The word is written with three picture characters: Ten, which is also the first part of the word for Heaven; pu indicates a woman; and ra is a type of woven silk gauze.
Put them all together and you end up with something like “a woman in silk gauze, giving a glimpse of paradise”.
It might be outdated, but that’s not a bad description of tempura – a delicious, deep-fried snack in a light gauze-like coating.
Tempura is all about the lightness of the coating; the more ethereal, the better. It should be delicate and crisp and should almost melt in your mouth.
Equally important is what happens inside the siding, and the possibilities are almost endless. Tempura only cooks a few short minutes – longer and that wispy coating will burn – but just about anything that can be cooked in that time can be tempura-cooked.
Shrimp is a classic. The same goes for small or thin vegetables. Thin-sliced steak is popular, as are Alaskan king crab legs.
The best tempura I have ever had was a soft shell crab claw. The crab had just moulted its shell that afternoon, and the claw was perfect – tender and brackish, encased in a light golden brown crust and dazzlingly delicate.
As it turns out, I don’t have a crab that’s just molted its shell, so I stuck with shrimp and an assortment of veg. The only question was what kind of paste I would use.
The traditional dough is exquisitely simple: a cup of flour, a cup of water and an egg, although some add baking powder, and a little sugar can also be added.
A more modern update uses cornstarch in place of flour for a crispier crust and replaces the water with club soda, assuming the bubbles make the dough lighter.
I also consulted with J. Kenji Lopez-Alt, who uses science to improve cooking. The best tempura should use club soda and as much cornstarch as flour. But he also suggests an ingredient I would never have thought of: vodka. This limits the development of gluten in the dough, he writes, which keeps the dough lighter for longer.
Which one to use? For the sake of science, I tried all three.
The traditional dough was the thickest of the bunch. It is the only one that has time, 15 minutes, to set and thicken. As a result, the fried crust he created was the thickest of the three, but only thin. The irresistible taste of the fried crust was also the most obvious of the three, but again, only by little.
The biggest distinction in traditional batter seems to come from its small amount of sugar. The taste difference is extremely subtle, if not nonexistent, but the sugar clearly makes the crust a little browner. This slightly darker tempura is more visually appealing than its pale, wan rivals.
The modern update of the traditional method, one that substituted cornstarch for flour, was particularly pale and wan, and also thin. He was barely hanging on to the vegetables and shrimp he was trying to coat.
In fact, it didn’t taste bad. But there was also nothing notable or memorable about it. If you think of fried onion rings as a kind of tempura, and they are, then this version resulted in the soft, stringy onion rings found in the type of sports bars that are particularly insignificant for their food.
It wasn’t as good as the other two. Frankly, I don’t recommend trying it (actually, I’m not going to include the recipe so there’s no mistake).
The scientific version of Lopez-Alt tempura was lighter (in texture and color) than the traditional method and more crisp. It has probably come close to the ultimate tempura ideal.
However, it is also more difficult to do. You must have ice cold soda water (I put a chilled can in a large bowl of ice water an hour before cooking), and you must have vodka as well. It would be better if the vodka was this ice cold, but the vodka that I thought was in my freezer turned out not to be there. So I used regular room temperature vodka, although a particularly nice brand.
Is this version a waste of good vodka? The recipe calls for two ounces, which would be poured as a shot in a good Russian restaurant. The question boils down to a matter of personal taste.
What do you enjoy the most, a shot of vodka or the best tempura you could make?
Yield: 4 servings
1 cup all-purpose flour
1 cup of water
Pinch of salt
1 teaspoon of granulated sugar
1/2 teaspoon of baking powder
1 pound of peeled shrimp or 4 cups of vegetables such as onion rings, green pepper slices, zucchini slices or spears, peeled and sliced sweet potatoes, mushrooms, sliced carrots, green beans or some asparagus
1. In a medium bowl, combine flour, water, egg, salt, sugar and baking powder. Whisk well (or use egg beaters) until the mixture reaches the consistency of whipping cream. Refrigerate 15 minutes. If the mixture gets too thick, add a little water until the consistency looks like whipping cream again.
2. Pour the oil into a large saucepan to a depth of at least 2 inches. Bring the temperature to 375 degrees (if you don’t have a thermometer, put a drop of dough in the oil; it should fall to the bottom for a second, then rise to the top and sizzle gently. If it stays at the bottom the oil is too cold; if it sizzles immediately on it, it is too hot).
3. Dip the shrimp or vegetables in the batter and fry them a few at a time (the temperature should drop to around 350 degrees). Return to the oil a few times and fry on both sides until lightly browned. Remove with a wire mesh spider, colander, slotted spoon or chopsticks on paper towels to drain. Serve with a dip on the side, if desired.
Per serving (using shrimp): 468 calories; 29 g of fat; 23 g of saturated fat; 229 mg of cholesterol; 28 g of protein; 28 g of carbohydrates; 1 g of sugar; 1 g of fiber; 193 mg of sodium; 138 g of calcium
Recipe adapted from Russ Rudzinski’s “Japanese Country Cookbook”
Yield: 4 servings
2 liters of peanut oil or vegetable shortening
1/2 cup cornstarch
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon of salt, plus more for dusting
1 teaspoon of sugar, optional
1 large egg
1/4 cup 80 proof vodka
1/2 cup iced club soda
4 cups thinly sliced vegetables or 1 pound shrimp
Lemon wedges or dip (see recipe), for serving
1. Heat the oil to 375 degrees. If you don’t have a thermometer, put a drop of the paste in the oil; it should drop to the bottom for a second, then rise back up and sizzle gently. If it stays at the bottom, the oil is too cold; if it sizzles immediately on it, it is too hot.
2. Combine cornstarch, flour, salt and sugar, if using, in a large bowl and stir to combine. Combine egg and vodka in a small bowl and whisk until completely blended. Add club soda and stir until just combined. Immediately add to the bowl with the flour and, holding the bowl in one hand and a spoon in the other, shake the bowl back and forth while stirring vigorously until the liquid and dry ingredients are mixed. hardly combined. There must still be a lot of bubbles and pockets of dry flour.
3. Add the vegetables and / or shrimp to the dough and fold with your hand to coat. Pick up the vegetables a few pieces at a time, letting the excess paste drip off, and transfer them to the hot oil, bringing your hand as close to the surface as possible before releasing to minimize spattering.
4. Increase the heat to maximum to keep the temperature as close to 350 degrees as possible, and add the remaining vegetables or shrimp a few pieces at a time. Immediately begin to agitate them with chopsticks, a wire spider or a skimmer, separating the vegetables, turning them over and constantly exposing them to fresh oil. Continue to fry until the batter is completely crisp and pale blonde, about 1 to 2 minutes.
5. Transfer the tempura to a paper towel-lined plate or baking sheet. Immediately sprinkle with salt, unless serving with a soy sauce based sauce. Serve with lemon wedges or a dip.
Per serving (using shrimp): 479 calories; 30 g of fat; 5 g of saturated fat; 229 cholesterol; 26 g of protein; 28 g of carbohydrates; 1 g of sugar; 1 g of fiber; 737 mg of sodium; 83 mg of calcium
Adapted from “The Food Lab” by J. Kenji Lopez-Alt
Yield: 4 servings
1 cup of chicken broth
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1/2 cup soy sauce
2 tablespoons of mirin or dry sherry
Combine all the ingredients and divide among 4 bowls. Serve at room temperature or warmer.
Per serving: 162 calories; 1 g of fat; 1 g of saturated fat; 2 mg of cholesterol; 4 g of protein; 35 g of carbohydrates; 31 g of sugar; no fiber; 969 mg of sodium; 5 mg of calcium
Recipe from Russ Rudzinski’s “Japanese Country Cookbook”