That’s the whole concept of tempura – once the oil is hot enough to begin bubbling, lightly battered food is dipped in it just long enough to flash cook it and to seal in the flavors. The batter actually protects the food from the oil and ensures the edibles are steamed, not fried, and that they retain their full complexity. Thus, the food retains a broader range of flavors than with any other cooking method and consequently it has a purer taste. How very Japanese.
Even better, tempura is ideally suited to nearly any kind of food, the only requirement being that it is of a size easily handled with chopsticks, both in preparation and, closer to our concern here, in eating. As such, all manner of seafood and vegetables are fair game, as you can see in today’s offering.
Today brings, moving clockwise from the top, shrimp, shitake mushrooms, asparagus, carrots, scallions, green beans, white fish (sea bass) and scallops. A complete meal, improved, if that’s even possible, by a plunge in the soy-based dipping sauce, coating everything in slightly sweet umami. (Finally! – The first time this Japanese word has been used to describe something that’s actually…Japanese.)
Instructions were found among the pages of the Dining in the Great Embassies cookbook, a collection of recipes chefs at some of the top ambassadorial postings in Washington choose to prepare for embassy dinners. As such, it’s certain they select dishes that exemplify and celebrate their countries. Among the thousands of different meals prepared in Japanese kitchens, tempura is one of the few that made its way to embassy guests and, by extension, to you.
Note the Japanese beer at the ready. Try getting that at a glittering embassy dinner. …Come to think of it, though, it might not be quite so difficult a find. After all, the Japanese are all about exquisite manners and, above all, supreme hospitality. They’d find a way to ensure their guests want for nothing.
Anyway, the secret to tempura‘s success is the batter. Substantial enough to fend off the oil and to seal in the flavor, yet light enough for subtlety, the batter uses iced water to prevent glutens from forming, thus keeping everything airy. Some recipes suggest using seltzer to produce the same effect. Better even is combining the approaches. Thus, a bottle of club soda went into the freezer until little icebergs began to form.
After that, everything came together rapidly. The journey from batter, to wok, to plate took but a minute or so. The transformation from rawness to tender perfection is nearly instant.
For the batter:
- 2 eggs, beaten
- 1 cup ice water (*1)
- 3/4 cup flour
- 1 tablespoon cornstarch
- 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
For the dipping sauce:
- 1/4 cup chicken broth
- 1/4 cold water
- 1/4 cup soy sauce
- 1 teaspoon sugar
- sesame seeds, for garnish (*2)
For the tempura ingredients:
- whatever appeals to you, but see note below (*3)
- oil (*4), poured to a depth of two inches in a wok or deep pan
Prepare the ingredients by cutting the vegetables and fish (if using) into chopstick-friendly sizes. If you added scallops, halve them horizontally. If shrimp is included, shell them, but leave the tails on. Make three deep cuts across the underside, to prevent the shrimp from curling when it fries. Refrigerate the ingredients until ready to use.
Next, make the dipping sauce. Combine all the sauce ingredients but the sesame seeds and pour the mixture into a serving bowl. Sprinkle with sesame seeds, then set aside until dinner.
Finally, prepare the batter. In a medium bowl, stir together with a fork or with chopsticks the dry ingredients (flour, cornstarch, salt and baking powder).
Meanwhile, pour oil to a depth of two inches in a wok or in a deep frying pan. Place the vessel over a medium-high flame and heat it until it reaches 360°. Adjust the flame as necessary to regulate the oil temperature.
Just before the oil reaches temperature, finish the batter. In another medium bowl, combine the wet ingredients (eggs and ice water). Pour these into the flour mixture, stirring with a fork or chopsticks until just combined, but still lumpy.
Working with a few pieces at a time (you don’t want to crowd them) dip the ingredients into the batter and allow excess batter to drip back into the bowl. Carefully lower the batter-dipped ingredients into the boiling oil. A wire “spider” (so named for the ladle’s web-like structure) is a great tool for this, and for other applications:
Rotate the ingredients once, allowing the batter to brown evenly on both sides. After a minute or so cooking time, total, the items should be done. They cook/tenderize quickly, and you don’t want to keep them in the wok too long, else they’ll absorb oil, or even will burn. A minute or so is sufficient.
Remove the ingredients to a paper towel to wick up any excess oil. Repeat the preceding two paragraphs until you’ve used all your ingredients. Be sure to allow the oil to get back to 360° before starting the next round. Arrange food on a platter and serve with dipping sauce.
1 – As you may recall from the intro, some instructions suggest seltzer, because the bubbles make the batter light. Why not get the best of both worlds? Buy a small bottle of club soda and stick it in the freezer. Check it occasionally to ensure it doesn’t freeze solid (or, worse yet, burst). There shouldn’t be much danger of this, though, if you’re at least vaguely vigilant. After about half an hour, little “icebergs” will form in the club soda. Perfect – that’s exactly what you want!
2 – Sesame seeds weren’t included in the original recipe above, but they are visually interesting, as they layer the dipping sauce’s surface. More important, their taste compliments the sesame oil which, traditionally, is the preferred tempura frying element (see Note 4 below).
3 – Choose whatever combination of proteins and vegetables that appeal to you, or which you think your guests will enjoy. Limit the former to seafood or tofu, as other meats take too long to cook and thus, they become oily. Besides, seafood is a natural for the Japanese island realm.
In addition to what’s included this week (shrimp, shitake mushrooms, asparagus, carrots, scallions, green beans, sea bass and scallops) you might want to try green peppers, tofu, bamboo shoots, cauliflower florets, yams, shallot rings, and so on, and so on…
4 – Vegetable or peanut oils are fine for tempura, but traditionally, cooks used sesame oil.