Japanese Tempura

Appears in
On Food and Cooking

By Harold McGee

Published 2004

  • About

The classic Japanese version of fried fish is fish tempura, a preparation and term that were borrowed in the late 16th century from Portuguese and Spanish missionaries who cooked fish during fasting seasons (tempora means “period of time”). Tempura—which now means a batter-fried food of any sort—is characterized by relatively small pieces that cook in just a few minutes, and a fresh, barely mixed batter made from an egg yolk, 1 cup/120 gm flour, and 1 cup/250 ml ice water stirred together with chopsticks just before the frying. As in all batters, cold water makes the mixture more viscous and thus better retained on the fish surface. The freshness of the batter means that the flour particles have little time to soak up water, so the moisture is rapidly removed from their surfaces during frying to produce a crisp crust. And the minimal mixing means an uneven batter consistency and therefore an uneven, lacy coating on the fish, rather than a monolithic sheet.