Tempura, one of the best-known Japanese dishes in the West, transforms shrimp and a variety of vegetables into delicate, crisp puffs. There are two schools of thought concerning the making of the batter; some chefs insist that just flour and water be used, and others always include some egg. It’s really a matter of personal choice—the plain flour-and-water batter produces wispy, lacelike morsels, whereas the addition of egg makes for richer, more golden tempura. The recipe here allows for both options.
Traditionally, each diner is provided with a shallow bowl of faintly sweet amber dipping sauce, to which he can add as much grated radish and/or fresh ginger as he wishes. Wedges of fresh lemon or lime make an attractive and delicious garnish, too—squeeze a bit of juice directly on the fried tempura.
Unlike most Japanese main courses, this is a dish that should be served piping hot, a good reason for making it in small batches at the table if you’ve got the equipment. If not, keep freshly fried and drained pieces warm for up to 20 minutes in a 225–250-degree oven.
Shell and devein the shrimp, leaving the tail sections intact. Lightly score the underbelly to prevent the shrimp from curling when fried. Remove the stem and cut the eggplant in half across its width, and then each half into 4 pieces lengthwise. Cut each of these 8 wedges into a fan shape. Cut each green pepper into quarters, lengthwise, and remove the seeds. Or wash the okra pods well and pat them dry. Wash the mushrooms and remove and discard their stems. (Cut very large mushrooms in half.) Pat them dry. Peel the carrot and slice it into matchsticks.
Now prepare your batter: Measure the flour and place all but one tablespoon into a large bowl. Make a well in the center of the flour and pour in half of the plain ice-cold water or the egg-and-cold-water mixture. Stir with light, circular motions, incorporating about half of the flour. The batter should be slightly thinner than that used for pancakes, and small lumps are of no importance. It is better to undermix than overmix the batter.
Make the dipping sauce before frying the tempura, by combining the ingredients in a small saucepan and heating it through. You should have at least
Hold each shrimp by its tail and lightly dust it in a bit of flour. Then dip into the batter before frying it. Fry no more than 3 or 4 at one time to prevent the oil from cooling down too much. The shrimp will puff, turn golden brown and be cooked through in about 2–3 minutes. Turn the shrimp once if necessary, halfway through the frying. Drain well and skim the oil with a net skimmer to remove batter spatterings.
Coat each eggplant piece in the batter and fry, 3 or 4 at a time, skin side down, in the oil for 1 minute. Turn the pieces and continue to fry them for another minute or two until golden and cooked through. Drain well. Skim the oil again.
Pour a bit more egg liquid into the bowl and incorporate more flour to make additional batter. Dip the pepper pieces or okra pods, one at a time, in the batter and fry them (less than a minute for peppers, about 1–1½ minutes for okra). Drain well and skim the oil.
Dip the mushrooms in batter and fry them for about 1 minute. Drain them well. Add more egg liquid to make batter if needed. Toss in the carrot strips and let 4 or 5 stick together, forming several small bundles. Fry the bundles for 1½–2 minutes and drain well.
On each of 4 large individual plates (the Japanese often use woven bamboo trays) lay a sheet of plain white paper or a doily and arrange 3 shrimp, 2 eggplant pieces, 2 pepper pieces or 2 okra pods, 1 mushroom and
Serve the tempura hot, providing each diner with the warm dipping sauce and condiments to be added to the sauce.
© 1986 Elizabeth Andoh. All rights reserved.