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Tempura – The history of Japan's unique fried food

Tempura is one of the most common Japanese dishes served outside of Japan. Along with sushi, it's synonymous with 'Japanese food' in the minds of many.

This is a dish that consists of vegetables and seafood battered and deep fried, and served over rice or noodles. But what many don't realize is that tempura's origins are not Japanese.

What is tempura?

The ingredients of tempura usually include seafood and vegetables. The seafood is usually shrimp or white fish. Vegetables commonly used include onions, potatoes, sweet potatoes, shiitake mushrooms, kabocha (Japanese pumpkin), green peppers and carrots. You’ll also find a round fritter of mixed vegetables and seafood called kaki-age.

But what makes tempura different from other fried fare is its distinctive batter. It uses no bread crumbs and less grease than other frying methods. The batter is basically made from beaten egg, flour and cold water. Sometimes starch, oil or spices may be added.

In the time of Lent

The Japanese have a unique ability to take foreign food and modify it to Japanese tastes, creating something totally new and original, and tempura is a prime example.

This method of frying food was introduced in the 1600s by Portuguese missionaries. The original dish has disappeared, but it was a meal meant for Lent, when many Christian denominations are forbidden to eat meat. In fact, the name tempura comes from the Latin ad tempora cuaresme, which means ‘in the time of Lent. 'The Japanese mistook this as the dish's name and called it tempura.

Tempura was introduced around the commercial port city of Nagasaki. At the time, Japan was closed off from the rest of the world. Its only contact was through Portuguese, Dutch and Chinese traders and missionaries in this port city.

The frying technique of tempura was something wholly new to Japan. Unlike most countries on earth, there had never been a tradition of frying food. Even though neighboring China had always had fried dishes and much of its culinary culture had come to Japan centuries earlier, somehow frying food never caught on.

Death by tempura

Tempura quickly became a popular snack that was served between meals. Tokugawa Ieyasu, the first shogun of Japan, reportedly loved it. Some say he died from eating too much tempura. Of course, this is probably an exaggeration. But isn't it a better way to die than being gored in battle?

Originally, tempura was made of balls of minced meat, vegetables and fish. Somewhere around the 18th century, Japanese chefs experimented with frying fish and vegetables whole. Here is where the snack became truly Japanese. There is a strong tradition in Japan of eating food that’s fresh and left in its natural state. When chefs began frying vegetables and fish whole, preserving their unique taste and character, it became a truly Japanese food. This is also when tempura went from a between meal snack to a meal in itself.

Tempura today

Today, tempura is most often served on rice in a rice bowl called tendon or on top of soba noodles. It may be served as a side and dipped in sauce. Sushi rolls are occasionally fried in tempura style but this is not so common within Japan. Many other food items such as ice cream, fruit, and noodles have been batter-fried in the tempura style.

The original dish that became tempura has disappeared from Portuguese cuisine, but there are similar dishes today such as peixinhos da horta, which are small fish fried in a style similar to tempura. In countries where there was a Portuguese presence there are also similar dishes. It’s speculated that the original Portuguese dish may have come from Goa in India where a similar dish called pakora is served.

Today, tempura is an essential part of traditional Japanese cuisine. This dish of foreign origin was changed to suit Japanese tastes, creating something totally original. Tempura shows the Japanese brilliance for incorporating foreign foods and making them uniquely Japanese.

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