January 7th is National Tempura Day, which may seem like an odd choice for an American food holiday. But tempura actually refers to the Japanese method of frying vegetables and seafood, and is not an actual Japanese dish like sushi or udon. In fact, the foods we cooked tonight were all distinctly American (and the side dish, Chinese). But more on that later.
Tempura didn’t even originate in Japan. Jesuit missionaries from Portugal introduced it to the Japanese in the 16th century, while visiting Nagasaki. They also brought over panko and tonkatsu (though the Japanese are responsible for origami, haiku, and vending machines that dispense everything from live crabs to soiled panties). Tempura is derived from the Latin word tempore, which means “time period” and refers to Ember Days, holy days in which Catholics eschew meat in favor of fish and vegetables. Regardless of where it came from, the Japanese took to tempura like a fat kid to cake, dipping everything they could find in batter and deep frying it in hot oil.
We were both excited for this challenge because it allowed us an opportunity to cook an entree. Squirting a dollop of whipped cream from a can is easy, but where’s the fun in that? (Actually, it could have been very fun, if this were an R-rated blog. Sadly, it is not). Neither of us wants this challenge to be too simple. We’ve been looking forward to getting down and dirty with some of these ingredients! So to speak.
By the way, one week in and we are beginning to get a feel for things. We’ve learned some lessons already: preparation is key, and do not take the easy way out. While we’re still finding our rhythm, I think from this point on you’ll start seeing us stretch ourselves a little bit more.
Back to tempura. I’d actually been craving it for some time, and had mentioned making it for Tara a while ago. I’ve owned a deep fryer for years (though using it remains a novelty), and I know from experience that tempura isn’t a complicated dish to make. We picked up a bunch of veggies – onions, mushrooms, yam, and zucchini – and a few large prawns. Those, a box of tempura batter and a bottle of dipping sauce, and we were all set. Tara’s not a fan of white rice, so she suggested we make fried rice to go along with it. Cross-cultural culinary conflict aside, I was game. She said she’d “pick up the packet” from the store on her way home, and I just looked at her. Packet? What packet?? Fried rice is easy enough to make without any preservative-laden help. But I feel I should offer her the chance for a rebuttal here.
Here’s another one I’m never going to live down… In my defense, I’ve never cooked fried rice and the one and only time it’s been cooked for me at home was just last year, and compliments of my dad. He did use one of those seasoning packets, along with the requisite diced ham, onions, eggs, and peas. It must’ve been all those preservatives Mark mentioned that made it taste so good.
On paper, tempura is easy to make. Pour the oil in the fryer, heat it to around 350 degrees, combine the tempura mix with ice water to form a batter (the colder the better – this prevents the batter from absorbing too much oil and leads to a crispier coating), dip, fry until golden brown, and voila! You’ve got yourself something hot, crispy, and authentically Portugese. The reality is a little different, however. You have batter dripping all over the counter and floor and sticking to your arms (where you don’t discover it until later, when it’s good and dry), and the house smells like fried oil for 48 hours afterwards. But at least it tasted good!
Especially when Tara has to clean up the mess.