The list of rules for what does and does not constitute dinner-party food has never carried weight with me. How does cheese soufflé, one of the most spectacular crowd-pleasers going, have the reputation as a problem dish in a world where roasted Jerusalem artichokes can become sudden dinner-party darlings? Cheese soufflé is delicious and light and easy to do, and it makes people happy. Jerusalem artichokes are gassier than your average Chevy Suburban, in case you haven’t noticed, which I know you have.
The injunction against deep-frying for dinner guests has always made sense to me, however. Deep-frying is inherently messy, and the food can turn from glorious to god-awful in the time it takes your guests to arrange themselves around the table.
But then in Japan last fall I ate an entire meal of tempura fish and vegetables. It was served at a tiny counter by a stern-looking chef who battered and fried glistening scallops, tiny white smelts, fat wild shrimp, miniature eggplants and the most exquisite green beans, piece by glorious piece. The process – the transformation of plant and animal matter into light, molten, crisp and melty two-bite miracles – was mesmerizing to watch. The finished products, pulled from the seething oil with a pair of long chopsticks, dusted with sea salt and set on a paper-lined plate in front of me, were delicious enough that I will carry the taste memory to my death, which will come suddenly, if I am lucky, when I am grey-haired and otherwise oblivious, gumming away happily at a knuckle of tempura lobster.
As I sat there watching Mr. Cranky-san, all I could think was, dude, lighten up, you make your living deep-frying food for happy people. I thought that, and then I thought, I bet I could do this.
Unlike Japan, which is chock-a-block with tempura restaurants, Canada is a tempura wasteland. Sure, you can find the odd piece of tempura shrimp on a sushi menu, a lot of it made hours ahead and kept sort of tepid for service. But I don’t know of a single place that has made tempura its calling card, where you can have a whole meal of tempura that’s done the way it should be, fried to order in front of you.
With a decent recipe, a bit of practice and a couple of litres of cold sake, an all-tempura menu could make for an epic dinner party, I realized. Which is how a few weeks later I found myself fumbling with a pair of those long wooden chopsticks and a pot of burbling oil. “Any moment now!” I said over and over to my dinner guests.
The two most important things in tempura-making are your batter and your oil. The batter is made from low-protein flour (cake flour’s a good choice), egg yolks and ice water, which you mix together just seconds before using. You mix the batter lightly enough so that it still has gobs of flour on its surface. That gob thing is critical: If the batter is smooth, you’ve overworked the flour’s glutens. Overworked glutens make leathery tempura. If it’s gobby, you get tempura’s signature lacy, uneven crust.
The trick with the oil – vegetable oil flavoured with a splash of toasted sesame – is keeping it at as close to 360 F (182 C) as possible. Too hot will burn the batter before the food cooks. Too cold and your food’s as greasy as a Kardashian at the tanning salon.
The other thing I learned is that you’ve got to organize absolutely everything before you start frying. (The tempura chapter in Tadashi Ono and Harris Salat’s Japanese Soul Cooking, published last year, is a terrific resource.) Your ingredients should be prepped and absolutely dry and laid out in easy reach; you should have a paper-lined rack for draining and salting, a skimmer for fishing stray bits of batter from the oil, and a plate for serving.
For my first effort, I planned to cook just one thing: some fresh perch that I’d sliced into strips. It would be an appetizer only, a few bites per person, served at my kitchen island just seconds after they emerged from the oil.