Translated by Hilary Keyes
What You Need To Know About Eating Tempura
Written by MATCHA
Of the many popular Japanese dishes out there, one that stands out is tempura - but what exactly is tempura? How do you eat it? When you come to Japan, you're sure to want to try it, so let's take a closer look at tempura.
Tempura is the name for dishes that have been dipped in a mixture of cold water, flour and egg then fried in oil. Because there are eggs in the mixture, some might assume that tempura are like fritters, where the egg whites are whipped, but this is not the case.
The ingredients vary by the season, but in general edible plants, vegetables, shrimp, squid, Japanese whiting, and other types of seafood are used in tempura.
Though tempura is considered a model of Japanese cooking, the root of the word "tempura" is theorized to have come from the Portuguese "tempero" (cooking) or Spanish "templo" (temple) which spread to Japan via foreign missionaries. Tempura came through Japan during the Edo era, where "fast, cheap, delicious" fast foods for the masses became popular.
Tempura Flavoring is Up to You
From: Eat Amazing Shirasu-don in Kamakura At Akimoto (Japanese)
Tempura is most commonly eaten with 'ten-tsuyu' - a dipping sauce (the white dish in the center of the above photo) made from dashi soup stock, soy sauce, and mirin (sweet rice wine). It's also quite common to add grated ginger or grated Japanese daikon radish to ten-tsuyu; both grated ginger and daikon radish add a refreshing edge to deep fried foods.
Other than ten-tsuyu, in order to really taste the basic ingredients of the dish, tempura may be eaten with just a sprinkling of salt. Recently flavored salts have become popular, such as matcha salt (salt with green tea powder mixed in), curry salt (salt with curry spices), even novel flavors such as yuzu citrus peel or powdered Japanese pepper salts.
And, in small amounts, citrus juices squeezed from lemons or sudachi (similar to a lime) are also great with tempura. There are some people who eat tempura with just soy sauce, Worchester sauce... The flavoring choice is entirely up to you. Half the fun of eating tempura is trying different patterns and matching the ingredients to the best flavors.
The Simple Tempura Menu
While you can eat tempura by itself, there are many other dishes which include tempura in them.
Ten-don is a bowl of rice with tempura on top that has had a sauce of concentrated soy sauce, dashi and mirin poured over it; this is a popular type of donburi (*1) dish. Donburi with the tempura mixed into half-scrambled eggs are also popular.
"Ten soba", "ten udon" are dishes where tempura rests on top of thin buckwheat noodles (soba) or on thick flour noodles (udon). "Ten musu" are shrimp tempura that have been wrapped in onigiri (*2), allowing you to enjoy rice and tempura at the same time.
Paired with the staples of rice or noodles as a side dish or on its own, tempura is a simple but somewhat fancy dish that is commonly enjoyed for lunch by the Japanese.
*1 Donburi: one dish Japanese meal featuring rice underneath a variety of toppings; the 'don' or porcelain bowl is typically bigger than the usual rice-only bowl.
*2 Onigiri: cooked white rice with a filling, shaped into a tube or a triangle which may or may not be wrapped with roasted seaweed on the outside.
Table Manners when Eating Tempura
When eating tempura at a restaurant, one of the most important things to keep in mind is the order of eating each piece. When several pieces of tempura are included on one plate, it is standard for the lighter-types (vegetables, shrimp, Japanese whiting) to be placed in front of the heavier-types (such as anago eel). It is recommended to eat the tempura from the front toward the back, as it's believed that the flavors will grow deeper in this manner.
If you would like to try something a bit more luxurious, you might like to visit a tempura shop with a counter where the chef prepares the dishes one by one, right before your eyes; you can eat the dishes while they are piping hot too. At this sort of shop however, it is also very important to keep an eye on when you order and eat each piece.
Tempura is at its most delicious when it is freshly made. No matter how fresh the ingredients are, once tempura has become cold, the crispiness of the batter is lost, so please make sure to enjoy it while it's hot.