For our twenty-second Cook-Off, we're making that familiar non-sushi Japanese restaurant stand-by, tempura. Reading up on tempura for this cook-off, I've learned a few things that surprised me. Apparently tempura is an early version of east-west fusion, in that the dish is often credited as having origins in the Spanish and Portuguese missions of the 16th century. Of course, the dipping sauce and the shredded daikon were uniquely Japanese touches.
Having had mediocre tempura many times, I ate one meal at a tempura specialty restaurant in Tokyo many years ago, and instantly realized -- of course -- that my tastes were bastardized by poor imitations here in the U.S. Though I ate many wonderful deep-fried courses, I also drank far too many wonderful Asahi Dry beers at the prompting of my hosts, so don't remember too much about the preparation save for the huge caldrons of oil, the constant grating of daikon, and the surprisingly small bowls of batter.
In his brilliant, encyclopedic, essential Japanese Cooking: A Simple Art, Shizuo Tsuji explains in typically perfect prose that the proper batter is, indeed, crucial:
Carefully chosen, fresh ingredients, some hot fry oil, and lumpy batter: sounds like a perfect dish for the cook-off novice and veteran alike!
With tempura, the goal is to achieve a lacy, golden effect with the deep-fried coating, not a thick, armorlike pancake casing. To avoid a heavy, oily-tasting coating, do the opposite of all that you would do to make good pancakes. Make the tempura batter just before you are ready to begin deep-frying. Do not let the batter stand. In fine tempura restaurants, for instance, batter is made in small batches as orders come in. Tempura batter should never be mixed well. It should not be smooth and velvety. It should be only loosely folded together (with chopsticks, which are not an efficient tool for mixing and hence the perfect utensil for the job). The marks of a good tempura batter are a powdery ring of flour at the sides of the mixing bowl and a mixture marked with lumps of dry flour.
Unless I'm missing something (always a possibility), there's not a lot going on here on eGullet involving tempura. There are a couple of Cooking topics here and here, and there's a brief discussion of the origin of the term "tempura" in the Japan forum here. So I think we'll be forging new ground, folks.
Who's going to start us off?