If you have ever bought tempura flour and fried stuff with it at home, then you probably think that you have made a delicious tempura, but I am not sure that you really understand what you are working with here. Please read on and think again 🙂
The true color of tempura is white! Not yellow.. Not golden.. And certainly not brown. While most of the world’s cuisines call for a perfect golden-brown fry, Japanese tempura is different.
I remember when I was in Japan and I ordered an assortment of tempura… The fried batter was white, light and crispy at the same time. It was baffling and fascinating. How could something so blonde be so crispy?
And then I learned that making tempura was a complete art of its own. The batter consists of tempura flour and water. No eggs, no oil and no seasoning, because any of these would promote a darker shade rather than a pure white.
The Maillard reaction that is typically responsible for the ‘goldening’ of fried goods, tends to bring out the taste of the batter. But tempura is not about tasting the batter. It’s about giving an interesting texture to encase the product and let its natural taste shine through. Even the dipping sauce that comes to accompany the tempura is usually diluted with a light broth, so as not to overpower the thin balance of flavor. It’s a very delicate taste for our Middle Eastern palettes to fathom, but I assure you that it is quite sophisticated… Just like everything Japanese. 🙂
The batter has to remain both; icy cold and lumpy at all times. And the oil temperature has to be held at a consistent 175°C to 185°C. If the oil temperature drops too low, you would end up with greasy fritters and if it goes up too high, you would have a golden-brown exterior with an undercooked product in the center.
Chefs in Japan will usually put the batter in an ice-bath while they work in order to keep it cold, which is another important factor in keeping the batter from absorbing too much oil. After a few rounds of frying, the batter loses its consistency and starts to form gluten. At this point it needs to be discarded and a fresh batter has to be prepared.
I had saved these beautiful lotus root slices for quite a while now and since the world seems to be ending soon, I thought it would be high-time for me to put them to good use.
Next time you order tempura from a Japanese restaurant here in Egypt, make sure you study your tempura and understand the difference. You don’t have to accept a KFC-style shrimp or a crunchy batter that has an unappetizing shade of dark brown on the outside. You now have all the knowledge you need to judge that fried morsel you are about to put in your mouth.