Though it is now considered uniquely Japanese, tempura – deep-fried large prawns and vegetables – was actually introduced to Japan in the second half of the sixteenth century by the Portuguese. It was probably rather leaden fare compared to the sophisticated and feather-light crisp batter of today’s tempura.
If you want to eat the very best, go to specialist restaurants where you sit at a bar and the chef fries the food in front of you, putting it into individual bamboo baskets lined with absorbent paper the instant it is done. The batter is so delicate it does not stay crisp for long, so this is what you should try to emulate at home, deep-frying and serving your tempura in batches in the kitchen.
There are a number of essential requirements to ensure good results, starting with the quality of the ingredients. Tiger prawns of about 20–25 to the kilo (10–12 to the pound) are perfect for the job and must be very fresh. They are expensive, but you only have three each. You could also fry white fish fillets, for example 1-cm / ½-inch strips of sole, cod or haddock taken off the skin. Whitebait, too, or squid are delicious in tempura batter. For the vegetables, green beans, mushroom caps, sweet peppers and spring onions would be an appropriate selection.
Tempura is traditionally served with a light dipping sauce and grated white radish and is followed by steamed rice and pickles. The dashi-no-moto – that is, instant Japanese soup stock of bonito and konbu seaweed – required for the sauce is now available from better supermarkets. Once you have your pristine ingredients to hand all you need is clean oil and, most importantly, the right batter, which is made only minutes before it is used, so first prepare the food for frying.
Put the prawns on kitchen paper to ensure they are completely dry. Slice the green and red peppers lengthwise into 1-cm / ½-inch strips. Top and tail the French beans and remove the caps from the mushrooms. Top and tail the spring onions and cut them in half lengthwise.
Make the dipping sauce by dissolving the contents of the sachet of dashi in the hot chicken stock. Stir in the sugar, soy sauce, sake or sherry. Divide between 4 bowls.
Heat a deep-fryer or wok half filled with some clean sunflower oil to 190°C/375°F.
Make the batter: in a bowl, beat the egg with the ice-cold water. When completely mixed, dump the flour into it in one go and stir quickly with chopsticks to combine. The finished batter should have lumps and still have discernible traces of flour. (If you mix until smooth, your cooked batter will be more like that for English-style fish and chips.)
Put the vegetables in a bowl with some flour and toss to coat. Dip the individual pieces in the batter and fry for 2 minutes, turning once. Cook one vegetable at a time and do not overcrowd the pan or the temperature will drop, causing the batter to absorb oil and become greasy. In between batches, skim out any pieces of batter left behind and discard. Left in the oil for too long they will burn and taint it.
Remove the cooked pieces and drain on kitchen paper, serving immediately for your guests to eat with chopsticks. Fry the prawns last. People add grated daikon to their dipping sauce as individual preference dictates.
© 1998 Alastair Little and Richard Whittington estate. All rights reserved.