As with so many Japanese products, what we admire is not a native Japanese invention, but rather an import which Japanese techniques and ingenuity have perfected. Tempura, or batter-coated deep-frying of fresh fish and vegetables, was introduced by Portuguese missionaries in the late 16th century. But it is the Japanese who have elevated this type of cooking to the subtle art of locking the natural flavors of fresh ingredients into a lacy golden coating. No wonder the Japanese have written the word for this heavenly dish with the character for "heaven".
Tempura in Japanese HistoryAlthough the derivation of the word tempura is unclear, whether from tempora (the day of abstinence on which Portuguese missionaries ate fish) or the artist's pallet of temperas, historians agree that the addiction to the food changed the course of Japanese history. The first Lord of all Japan, Shogun Tokugawa leyasu, who lent his name to the three centuries called the Tokugawa Period, was fond of sampling new food delicacies. When a cook, coming all the way from Kyoto, arrived in the capital of Edo and claimed to have a new tempura concoction, the ailing lord insisted on trying some.
Despite the warnings of his physicians not to aggravate his stomach condition, he overstuffed himself since he found the tempura so delicious, and died several days later.
Tempura was originally a delicious between-meal snack. However, in the hands of Japan's master chefs, tempura developed into the art of making non-greasy, crisp, deep-fried morsels. The cheap tempura snacks and lunches are still available, but only tempura boasts the lacy texture and subtle taste which has won the acclaim of gastronomes the world over.
Gourmet TipsThe secret to tempura's crispiness is in its batter coating or more precisely, the lumps, which are apt to form in the tenuous mixture of egg, ice water and flour. Because these ingredients remain unmixed, each morsel dipped to the bottom of the batter is coated in an egg-water-flour sequence. The batter must be made in small batches and not left to stand. If the flour is mixed too thoroughly moreover, the result will be an armorlike pancake casing, rather than the crispy coating the Japanese call a "cloak" or koromo. The Japanese claim that they can tell the difference between tempura made by a five-year "novice" and a 20-year veteran, so subtle is the chemistry at work in the tempura chef's powdery-ringed batter bowl.