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Everything to Know About Tempura – Origins, How to Eat, Recommended Types, and Popular Restaurants

Just as sushi is known worldwide as a dish that represents Japan's food culture, so too is tempura attracting attention as an iconic Japanese dish. There is much to know about tempura, from its history to how to eat it and what etiquette to keep in mind. This article is full of information helpful to truly enjoy tempura!

What is Tempura?

Tempura is a dish of various ingredients, such as seafood and vegetables, deep-fried in a batter that includes flour. It is deep fried so that you can enjoy the crunchy texture of the batter and the soft and fluffy texture of the ingredients. It is enjoyed both in restaurants and at home, and is today one of the key dishes of Japanese cuisine.

The History and Origins of Tempura

[History] Though tempura is known worldwide as a staple food of Japan, it actually did not originate there. Tempura is said to have been introduced by the Portuguese in 1543. At the time, cooking oil was expensive and hard to procure, so tempura, which requires a lot of oil, was considered to be a luxury food. However, cooking oil became accessible during the Edo Period (1603 - 1868) thanks to mass production, and tempura became popular among the masses.

[Origin] There are various theories about the origin of the word "tempura". One of the most plausible theories is that it comes from the Portuguese word "tempora", which means Lent. Lent is a period in the Christian calendar during which the believer engages in prayer, fasting, and other religious observances. It is said that because consumption of meat was prohibited during this time, the Portuguese ate deep fried battered fish, a dish similar to today's tempura.

Regional Differences in Tempura

Tempura ingredients differ slightly between the Kanto and Kansai regions.

[Kanto] In the Kanto region, the batter (flour dissolved in water) is made with egg. The ingredients are dipped in the batter then deep fried in sesame oil. It is cooked quickly at high temperature. The result is a golden color and crunchy texture.

[Kansai] In the Kansai region, the batter is just flour. Instead of dissolving the flour in water, the ingredients are dipped directly in the flour and deep fried in vegetable oil. It is deep fried over time at a low temperature resulting in a lighter color and a fluffy texture.

The Difference Between Tempura and Kakiage

Here is some trivia to make you a tempura expert! There is a dish called "kakiage" that is similar to tempura. It is made in the same manner as tempura, by "deep frying ingredients covered in batter."They may appear to be the same, but there is one important difference. While each ingredient in tempura is battered and deep fried separately, kakiage is a deep fry of multiple ingredients, such as onion, carrot and burdock root, mixed together with batter. Since different ingredients are cooked together in kakiage, consideration is necessary to make the cooking time the same, such as by cutting ones that take longer to cook into small pieces. If you have the chance, be sure to try kakiage as well as tempura.

*The photo is of a kakiage.

Seafood and Meat

[Shrimp] Shrimp has long been a popular standard of tempura ingredients. The combination of the plump texture and crispy batter is addictive. If you are having tempura for the first time, start with shrimp tempura!

[Squid] Tempura is a great way to enjoy the springy texture and unique sweetness of squid. Like shrimp, it is a popular ingredient enjoyed by people of all ages.

[Kisu (sillago)] Kisu, which is a type of fish with white meat, is characterized by a light flavor. Tempura is a great way to enjoy the soft and fluffy texture of kisu together with a crispy batter.

[Chicken breast] Chicken breast tempura is characterized by a meaty, soft texture and juicy flavor. It is an ingredient that is readily available at supermarkets and great to enjoy at home.

Vegetables

[Eggplant] Eggplant is the classic ingredient for vegetable tempura. It is known as a summer vegetable, but is wonderful deep fried and enjoyed steaming hot.

[Mushroom] Tempura of various mushrooms, such as maitake, enoki and nameko, is also popular. Fleshy mushrooms are supremely satisfying ingredients. The more you chew, the more the umami flavors fill your mouth.

[Kabocha squash] Kabocha tempura is characterized by a fluffy texture and sweetness. When deep fried as tempura, even the skin is soft and you can fully enjoy the natural flavors of the ingredient.

[Kakiage] Vegetable kakiage is a type of tempura in which you can enjoy the flavors of a variety of vegetables, such as carrot, onion and green pepper, all at once.

Recommended Seasonal Tempura

Tempura is actually a seasonal dish with different ingredients that are best at different times of the year. Here are some ingredients that are recommended for each season:

[Spring]
Vegetables: New potato, shungiku (edible chrysanthemum), bamboo shoot, etc.
Seafood: Kisu, sakura shrimp, kobashira (scallop abductor muscle), etc.

[Summer]
Vegetables: Myoga (Japanese ginger), corn, asparagus, etc.
Seafood: Hamo (daggertooth pike conger), sea bream milt, young ayu (sweetfish), etc.

[Fall]
Vegetables: Matsutake mushroom, gingko nut, chestnut, etc.
Seafood: Oyster, bigfin reef squid, fall hamo, etc.

[Winter]
Vegetables: Negi scallion, seri (Japanese parsley), burdock root, etc.
Seafood: Fugu (pufferfish) milt, crab, scallop, etc.

Unusual Tempura Ingredients

[Manju] A daring way of eating the ultimate Japanese sweet, manju. Deep frying makes it even sweeter and tastier. It has been enjoyed this way for over 100 years in some regions.
*Manju is a Japanese confectionary of sweet bean paste wrapped in a dough made of flour and other ingredients.

[Ice cream] Cold ice cream in piping hot oil? You may wonder if it will melt, but fear not! The chewy texture and the coolness of the ice cream go perfectly together.

[Cookie] Not many Japanese have tried it, but it has long been popular in Nishigawa in Iwate Prefecture as a local dish.

[Beni shoga (red pickled ginger)] A perfect bar snack. The acidity and the crunchiness of the beni shoga is addictive. It is a tempura popular in Osaka.

[Corn] Hugely popular among children. The sweetness of the corn is enhanced by deep frying. It is also a tempura to enjoy the texture.

[Sushi] Tempura sushi is a way to enjoy two of Japan's most iconic dishes, "sushi" and "tempura" in one. A tempura to savor two flavors at the same time.

[Soft-boiled egg] The moment you bite into a soft-boiled egg tempura, the sweetness of the egg fills the mouth. It is sometimes available at udon (thick noodles) shops as a topping.

The Best Ways to Eat Tempura

What Condiments Go Well with Tempura?

Tempura is made with no seasoning on the ingredients or batter, so you can season it as you like when eating it. Here are some condiments that go particularly well with tempura.

[Ten-tsuyu] Tempura is a special tsuyu (sauce) for tempura and is the classic condiment to have with tempura. It is made with dashi (broth), mirin (type of sweet rice wine used in cooking​), and other ingredients. To eat, quickly dip the tempura in the ten tsuyu. The tsuyu seeps into the batter and goes well with any ingredient.

[Salt] If you want to enjoy the umami flavors of the ingredients, eat them just with salt. Eating with salt may be considered a more sophisticated way of enjoying tempura.

[Mayonnaise] Mayonnaise is a great condiment to add flavors to a variety of dishes, and it actually goes well with tempura. It softens the flavors and is popular among children.

[Matcha salt] Matcha salt is, as the name suggests, a mixture of matcha green tea powder and salt. It has a unique flavor with the bitterness of matcha added to the saltiness. It is not commonly served, so if you see it, be sure to try it.

Other food that goes well with tempura

Tempura can be enjoyed on its own, but can be even better with other foods that complement it. Here are some foods that go particularly well with tempura.

[Sushi] Sushi is one of Japan's most iconic dishes. While sushi tends to have light flavors, tempura is heavier and more filling. They are contrasting dishes but go surprisingly well together and there are many opportunities in Japan to have sushi and tempura together.

[Udon/soba] Udon and soba are two types of Japanese noodles, and tempura is often eaten together with them. They go so well together, many noodle shops offer set menus such as "tempura set". Tempura is very tasty dipped in udon and soba broths.

[Kaiseki ryori] Kaiseki ryori is a traditional Japanese cuisine that is based on the concept of "ichiju sansai" (a menu consisting of one soup and three side dishes in addition to rice). It was long enjoyed in the world of Japanese tea ceremony as a cuisine to serve to guests. There are many more dishes in kaiseki ryori today, and it is often enjoyed on special occasions and celebrations. Tempura made with seasonal ingredients is often served as a part of a kaiseki course.

Tendon is Also Popular

In Japan, there is a dish called "donbori", where rice and various food are served in the same bowl. There is a wide variety of donburi, such as kaisendon (seafood bowl), katsudon (cutlet bowl), and tendon, which is tempura on rice. The combination of the hot tempura and fluffy rice whets the appetite. The tempura sauce seeps into the rice so that it is tasty to the last bite. Be sure to try tendon if you have the chance.

Etiquette for Eating Tempura

Here is some etiquette to keep in mind to enjoy your tempura. There is actually a proper order for eating tempura. If you get a tempura assortment, tempura made with light ingredients, such as vegetables, shrimp and kisu, are often served in front and ones made with richer ingredients, such as anago (conger eel), in the back. Tempura is best enjoyed by eating the lighter foods first then moving onto the richer ones. Tempura is tastiest when freshly fried, so try to finish it before it cools down. These are not rules that you must abide by, but you will be considered to be in the know if you do.

Popular Tempura Restaurants to Enjoy Tempura

Tempura is served at specialty tempura restaurants as well as at many izakaya (Japanese pub). There are also many sushi, udon and soba restaurants that serve tempura as side dishes. Be sure to enjoy your tempura together with other dishes. Here are five popular restaurants to enjoy fantastic tempura!

The Casual Tempura Chain, Tempura Tendon Tenya

Tenya is a nationwide chain that specializes in tendon. It is popular for its affordable yet tasty tempura, such as the Regular Tendon (540 JPY (incl. tax)) and Tempura Set Meal (730 JPY (incl. tax)). The tempura at Tenya is made with 100% vegetable oil. The oil is what makes or breaks tempura. Vegetable oils play a key role in making good tempura by, for example, enhancing the crunchiness of the batter or bringing out the umami flavors of the ingredients. Vegetable oil also has no cholesterol, so you can enjoy your tempura while being healthy.

The Casual Tempura Chain, Tempura Tendon Tenya

Kaneko-Hannosuke, Popular in Tokyo

Kaneko-Hannosuke is a famous tempura shop in the Nihombashi area of Tokyo. The founder, Kaneko Hannosuke, was a great lover of Japanese cuisine, believing that "Japanese culture is in its food". The tendon that Hannosuke created through much trial and error is an outstanding dish that is still beloved by many. The restaurant's signature menu item, Edomae-Tendon (980 JPY (incl. tax)), is an extravagant tendon made with anago, shrimp, and squid procured that day and topped with a soft-boiled egg. Pour the secret tare sauce over it and it is truly a magnificent dish.

Kaneko-Hannosuke, Popular in Tokyo

1-11-15 Nihonbashi Muro-machi, Shuo-ku, Tokyo

Tempura Tenkane, a Tokyo Icon with a 100+ Year history

Tempura Tenkane, which was founded more than a century ago, is one of Tokyo's most iconic tempura restaurants. The restaurant has been committed to using high quality ingredients and oil throughout its history. The perfect, fresh ingredients for tempura are carefully chosen at the markets. Tempura Tenkane offers a variety of courses, including the 11-Course Tempura Meal (8,800 JPY (excl. tax)), a great way to thoroughly enjoy tempura. If you want to really treat yourself to tempura, go to Tempura Tenkane.

Tempura Tenkane, a Tokyo Icon with a 100+ Year history

Odakyu HALC 1F, 1-5-1 Nishi-shinjuku, Shinjuku-ku, Tokyo

KOME-FUKU Nishiumedaten for seafood and tempura in Osaka

KOME-FUKU Nishiumedaten, a restaurant that serves all the best foods of Japan, is a great place to enjoy both seafood and tempura. The Assortment of 8 Tempura (1,390 JPY (excl. tax)) is a popular dish not to miss with tempura that is fantastically crispy. The tempura here is fried in domestic rice oil, which is somewhat unusual. Rice oil is full of vitamins and is said to have great beauty benefits. There are a staggering 40 different types of tempura served here. They can be ordered a la cart, so be sure to try your favorite ingredients.

KOME-FUKU Nishiumedaten for seafood and tempura in Osaka

Dojima Grand Bldg. 1F, 1-5-7 Dojima, Kita-ku, Osaka-shi, Osaka

Enjoy Kyoyasai and Kuruma Prawn Tempura at Tempura Endo Yasaka/Gion

Kyoto is known for its wonderful food, and if you want to enjoy tempura that is unique to Kyoto, Tempura Endo Yasaka Gion/Kyoto is the place to go to. The tempura here is made with seasonal ingredients, such as kyoyasai (heirloom vegetables from Kyoto), edible wild plants, and kuruma prawn. The tempura can be ordered a la cart by ingredient (300 JPY (excl. tax) - 1,500 JPY (excl. tax)). The restaurant is particular about the condiments that are indispensable for enjoying tempura. Savor the tempura dipped in their original blend of salt and ten-tsuyu.

Enjoy Kyoyasai and Kuruma Prawn Tempura at Tempura Endo Yasaka/Gion

566 Yasaka-dori Komatsu-cho, Higashiyama-ku, Kyoto-shi, Kyoto

This article has covered everything from the basics to information about how to eat tempura like a pro, and popular tempura restaurants. Now that you are in the know about tempura, go and enjoy this wonderful food!

*Please note that the information in this article is from the time of writing or publication and may differ from the latest information.

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