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The Japanese Table

Tracking Down Tempura

by Takashi Morieda

In a Portuguese restaurant on the outskirts of the Malaysian city of Malacca, imagine my surprise to come across a dish almost exactly like Japanese tempura!

Modern Japanese tempura consists of seasonal vegetables, fish and other seafood coated in a batter of wheat flour, egg and water, deep-fried in vegetable oil. Before eating, the tempura is dipped in a sauce made of bonito-based stock, soy sauce and mirin. Grated daikon, which helps to digest oily foods, is often added to the sauce.

Many would agree that tempura, along with sushi and sukiyaki, is considered somehow symbolic of Japanese cuisine. And yet, looking at the early history of this country´s dietary culture, one soon discovers that cooking with oil—whether frying, sautéing or deep-frying—is a relatively recent cooking innovation in Japan.

Historical Roots

China, which has long influenced Japan, has traditions rich in culinary techniques based on the use of oil. In fact, written Chinese includes an array of characters used to distinguish different types of frying, such as quick-frying over high heat, searing at low heat, and so on.

Yet Japan was unaffected by this particular culinary aspect of China: early Japanese cooking was more strongly influenced by the injunction against eating meat that arrived with the introduction of Buddhism in the sixth century. This meat-eating taboo came to Japan by way of China, but Buddhism was not the state religion of China, nor was it closely associated with the ruling classes, as it was in Japan. Pig lard was used to prepare some dishes in China, but pork fat was unavailable in Japan, once the eating of pork was prohibited. Vegetable oils were obtainable here, but they were used mainly as fuel for illumination and their quantity was limited; thus the use of oil in cooking was slow to catch on.

Tempura most likely made its first appearance in Japan via Spanish and Portuguese missionaries and traders, who introduced deep-frying in oil during the latter half of the sixteenth century. Gradually, the type of cooking we now know as tempura became firmly established during the eighteenth century. As if to endorse this history, I have encountered a deep-fried squid dish in Portugal. And to my surprise, I enjoyed something called “fritters” —deep-fried seafood or vegetables—which had an uncanny resemblance to tempura in Malacca in Malaysia. Malacca is a bustling coastal port where the descendants of Portuguese colonists, who arrived during the early sixteenth century, pursue fishing and other trades while conducting their lives in the local vernacular, a dialect of Portuguese.

As for the word “tempura” itself, one theory traces it to the Portuguese words temperar, to cook, and tempero, cookery. Another hypothesis relates that the word comes from templo, temple or church—vegetarian institutions that did not serve meat or fowl. Yet another explanation is that the word comes from the day observed by Catholic priests when they ate no meat, but only fish and vegetables: têmporas.

The Taste of Tempura

There are two styles of Japanese cooking that go by the name tempura: one is the commonly known deep-fried ingredients coated in batter; the other is deep-frying without any form of coating (su-age). The former style developed in eastern Japan, centering in Edo (present-day Tokyo), while the latter spread primarily in western Japan.

Yet in western Japan there also exists a tradition of batter-coated deep-frying, distinguished by the term tsuke-age (“dipped” deep-frying) or koromo-age (“coated” deep-frying). Both batter-coated and uncoated deep-frying have long histories in western Japan, although the uncoated deep-frying of fish cakes is considered the more orthodox form of tempura cooking there. Meanwhile, Edo´s batter-coated tempura went on to become the form of cuisine known internationally today.

What was early tempura like? The oldest extant records, dating from the late seventeenth century, indicate that it consisted of balls made of a paste of thrush meat, shrimp and ground walnuts, which were deep-fried in oil, then covered with a sauce thickened with kuzu (a perennial of the bean family) starch. No batter coating seems to have been applied.

In the mid-eighteenth century there are records of deep-frying with a coating, apparently fish dusted with flour or root vegetables like burdock, lotus and taro dipped in a thin mixture of flour, soy sauce and water. Considerable innovations then followed, creating the tempura we know today: the production of vegetable oil increased and its price stabilized, making it possible to use generous amounts in cooking; soy sauce manufacture became an established industry, and this seasoning became more widely available; it was also during this time that bonito-flake stock was more commonly used.

During the Edo period, tempura-style cooking first became popular at movable outdoor stalls. In those days, Edo was built entirely of wooden structures, and so was extremely vulnerable to fire. Cooking outdoors rather than in houses was encouraged, and outdoor stalls serving foods like tempura were very popular. Like sushi, tempura flourished as a snack enjoyed by the common townspeople, and went on to become an essential element in the “flavor hierarchy” of Japanese cuisine.

I had long heard that the origin of tempura could be traced to Portuguese cooking, and imagined that those original squid fritters had simply been “Japanized.” But upon closer scrutiny, it becomes clear that what the Japanese actually acquired was an understanding of the deep-frying process—and from that point, tempura evolved to suit the country´s own unique palate, thus integrating it into the heart of Japanese cuisine.

Author's Profile

Born in Minamata, Kumamoto Prefecture in 1955, Takashi Morieda holds a degree in cultural anthropology from Tokyo's International Christian University. He is a well-known photographer and specialist in food culture, as well as a pioneer in research of curries and Southeast Asian cuisine. Morieda is also the author of some 20 food-related books, and a volume of his photographs spanning a 20-year period has recently been published .