As one of the most well-known Japanese dishes overseas, tempura doesn’t really require much on an explanation. However, if you haven’t had really good tempura, you may not know exactly what this dish of fried vegetables and seafood can be. Tempura should be crispy and light, and not greasy at all. The crispy batter tentacles should easily crumble away as you bite into that fried shrimp or even that piece of thinly sliced pumpkin.
Tempura starts with fresh ingredients, both on the inside and outside. Large shrimp, just-cut vegetables (low water content varieties preferred), and a batter that is ice-cold and prepared in small batches. The batter’s viscosity should be light, with the flour, water, and other ingredients mixed up, usually using a pair of chopsticks, until they are just barely acquainted. A few small lumps here and there is no cause for alarm.
It goes without saying that, for best result, tempura should be eaten as soon as possible, while the crisp is still at its best. Lesser tempura — please excuse the food snobbery — is almost exclusively dipped into a dark, thin sauce that often has some grated daikon mixed in. Nothing wrong with that per se, but tempura purists often speak of that sauce as a cloying agent, instead choosing to enjoy their tempura with nothing more than a sprinkling of salt.
Tempura can be enjoyed on its own, or as a part of a variety of dishes. Tempura on top of udon or soba noodles is a familiar site, as is the “tempura-don”, which is an assortment of tempura arranged on top of a rice bowl. The people of Nagoya are well known for their “tenmusu,” which is a rice ball (onigiri) with a whole, tempura shrimp running through it.
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