Saturday, 30 April 2011


Tempura are the lighly and fluffy deep-fried batter-coated vegetables and seafood often served as a starter in Japanese restaurants. As my dad sadly observed, now that we can make them so well at home, we no longer need to go out to eat them! There are a few tricks to cooking them, which we have perfected over the years:

  • The batter should be barely combined, not whisked until smooth, so that the gluten does not become tough;
  • The batter should be kept cold, preferably suspended in a bowl of ice and water;
  • Slice the vegetables so that they evenly cook, i.e. have similar thickness all over;
  • Some vegetables benefit from being 'flowered' so that the batter clings better;
  • The oil should be at least the depth of the size of your vegetables;
  • The oil should be about 190 C; if you don't have an oil thermometer, a cube of bread should take 10 seconds to go crisp and golden;
  • A rack over the wok helps to drain the oil back into the pan for re-use.

Making cuts in the courgette pieces
so the batter clings better
Tonight we used sweet potato for the first time; cut to a half cm thickness, they cooked beautifully and were sweet and tasty. We bought a single medium-sized squid from the fishmonger and sliced the body into rings, and the tentacles and the fins into a few chunky pieces.

We also used courgettes; I decided to try a new way of cutting them as I had had poor results with them in sticks or slices before. I topped and tailed them, sliced them lengthwise, scooped out the seeds, sliced them lengthwise again, and then across into four pieces, making 16 flattish pieces from the single courgette. Then I took a small sharp knife and cut small triangles out along the edges, so that the pieces came out like little combs or fern leaves. This made the batter cling better, cook a little faster, and of course was rather pretty!

Sweet potato and courgette tempura
The batter should be made in a 1:1 ratio of flour to water, which should be ice-cold. If you use sparkling water, you should either defroth it somewhat, or leave the batter to rest for half an hour so some of the bubbliness is gone. If you use it straightaway, sometimes all the carbonation coes out at once, and in the resulting explosion the batter can become separated from the vegetables! Our Japenese cooking book demands 'tempura flour'; when I looked up what this consists of, it is just any plain white wheat flour - preferably a finely milled one for lightness. Nowadays this means any plain white flour from the supermarket will do perfectly fine.

When making the batter, the flour and water should be combined in a few swift strokes, with a butter knife or a pair of chopsticks. Don't use a fork, as it will fill up with flour and you'll end up overmixing the flour as you try to get the goobery bits out. Stop stirring the flour and water together as soon as you can no longer see any dry flour; don't worry if there are small lumps as they'll work themselves out. You can leave the batter to rest, or not; we've not found that it makes any real difference. Just make sure it stays cold.
Squid tempura

After all this preparation, making tempura is simple. A few at a time, drop your vegetables into the bowl of batter, moving around the pieces to make sure they are well coated. Lift a piece out with a pair of tongs, shake off any large excess of batter, then place gently in the hot oil. Cook only a few pieces at a time to avoid dropping the oil temperature too low. Remove to a rack suspended over the wok and then to a bowl lined with paper towel. Ideally, serve immediately, but even when preparing as a side for just four people, you will probably end up with a few soggy ones at the bottom. Maybe there's a good reason to go out to eat tempura every so often, after all :)

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