Saturday, 27 February, 2010

Tempura is a Japanese gastronomic specialty made with small bits of seafood and vegetables that are dipped in a special batter and briefly fried in hot oil.

According to historians, this dish was brought in to Japan in the mid-sixteenth century by the Portuguese and Spanish Jesuits missionaries, which were particularly active in Nagasaki. They introduced the habit of eating fish and vegetables in Catholic Easter times, called in Latin ‘tempora’ (‘Ad tempora Cuaresmae’). The origin of the word tempura is very probably from the Portuguese ‘tempero’. Although the missionaries were sent off from Japan, the dish remained, together with the name.There is still a dish in Portugal very similar to tempura called ‘peixinhos da horta’. Tempura is currently one of the most popular Japanese dishes, together with "sashimi", "sushi" and "sukiyaki".

A European citizen might wonder how the authentic Japanese Tempura actually tastes like. Open-Senses has been in Japan and tasted a traditional Tempura, searching for the authentic sensory impressions this dish provides, which are described below.

The Japanese technique to make Tempura is amazingly refined and only specialised Japanese chefs can make it properly. In Japan, this dish can only be found in restaurants specialised uniquely in Tempura. The following is a brief description of the technique to make Tempura. A lot of practice and sensitivity is required to do it properly.


35 g of fresh yeast are dissolved in half a litre of cold water. Then, 350 g of soft wheat flour, 15 g of salt and 5 of sugar are added and stirred until reaching an homogeneous light batter. It should not be over-mixed to prevent the activation of wheat gluten, which might result on an undesirable chewy texture. The dough is let stand for about 3 hours and it must be used immediately (not the following day). The batter is often kept cold by placing the bowl inside a larger bowl with ice in it. In a proper Tempura, the delicacy of the ingredients and the cold batter temperature should result in the unique fluffy and crisp tempura structure when cooked.


Common ingredients in traditional tempura include:

    Seafood: prawn, shrimp, squid, scallop, anago (conger eel), ayu (sweetfish), crab, and a wide variety of fish.

    Vegetables: bell pepper, kabocha squash, eggplant, carrot, burdock, green beans, sweet potato, yam, potato, renkon (lotus root), shiitake mushroom, mushrooms, bamboo shoots, okra.


Small bits of these ingredients are dipped in the batter and then briefly deep-fried in hot oil. Special care is taken not to overcook Tempura, in order to preserve the natural flavour and texture of the ingredients. Oil temperature is generally kept between 160 and 180 degrees Celsius. Cooking times range between a few seconds for delicate leaf vegetables, to three minutes for thick items. The oil should never be burnt and only a light golden colour should be reached.

The bits of batter (known as tenkasu) are scooped out between batches of tempura, so they do not burn and leave a bad flavour in the oil. A small mesh scoop is used for this purpose. Tenkasu are often reserved as ingredients in other dishes or as a topping.

Although vegetable oils are most common, the best restaurants use sesame oil according to the tradition because it is thought to help producing a lighter and crispier batter. Once removed from the hot oil, the bits should be placed upon absorbing paper in order to remove the fat.

The Japanese are very careful with the look of food: it must have nice colour combinations and look nice and graceful on the dish. Tempura shall also follow these rules. A proper Tempura must be warm and not greasy. The external layer must have a golden colour, be almost transparent and feel crunchy. The internal part (vegetable, fish or seafood) must be tender and juicy. All these gastronomic sensations can only be achieved by means of a well-elaborated technique.

Cooked bits of tempura are either eaten with dipping sauce or used to assemble other dishes. Tempura is commonly served with grated daikon and eaten hot immediately after frying. The most common sauce is tentsuyu sauce (roughly three parts dashi, one part mirin, and one part shoyu). Alternatively, tempura may be sprinkled with sea salt before eating. Mixtures of powdered green tea and salt or yuzu and salt are also used.

Tempura is also used in combination with other foods. When served over soba (buckwheat noodles), it is called tempura soba or tensoba. Tempura is also served as a donburi dish where tempura shrimp and vegetables are served over steamed rice in a bowl (tendon) and on top of udon soup (Tempura Udon).


Tempura is a new gastronomic fashion, together with many other Japanese influences that are perceived as exotic, interesting and a source of inspiring ideas. Chefs over the world include tempura dishes on their menus and we can find many non-traditional and fusion variants. A wide variety of different batters are used, and unusual ingredients, such as meats, mozzarella, banana, and even ice cream.

Care must be taken because there are many things called ‘Tempura’ that are not: they are just things coated in batter. This is not Tempura.

Specially formulated tempura flour is available in worldwide supermarkets, such as the Spanish Santa Rita flour. This is generally light (low-gluten) flour and occasionally contains leaveners such as baking powder.

Thus, tempura has gone through a very interesting historical and gastronomic journey: from Portugal and Spain to Japan, where it was methodically refined. And now is back to Western Countries, where it is being re-created and fused with local products, in an endless story of sensory experimentation!

At Open-Senses we are passionate about sensory innovation. If you share this passion, you can contact us at info@open-senses.com.