The first round was what I’ll call a tasty fiasco. I’d made a stupid measuring error with the batter; what came out of the oil was all fish, no tempura. I fixed the error by adding flour, then dropped in a second round, which came out light and moist, gently nutty tasting from its pale-golden batter. By the third round I was getting closer. I was figuring out how to manage the oil’s temperature. A few of the guests had started swooning. And then I ran out of fish.
That first effort was a wake-up call, a taste of what is possible. But it was also an important lesson: If I had any hope of doing an entire tempura dinner party, I was going to have to do some homework. I loaded up a shopping buggy with six litres of canola oil, a bottle of sesame oil, a bag of cake flour, a dozen eggs, a stack of fish fillets and six different types of vegetables. I was going to nail this thing and then lock it down.
The Japanese learned to make tempura in the 16th century. According to Harold McGee, author of the invaluable On Food and Cooking, they were taught by Portuguese and Spanish missionaries. Today, there are nearly as many tempura batter recipes as there have been intervening years: They can include anything from beer and cayenne pepper to potato flour, baking powder, dehydrated egg yolks and soda water. But tempura doesn’t need to be complicated. With all the variations I tried, including a supposedly “super-premium” dry mix that came labelled only in Japanese, the best one was the simplest. Two egg yolks. Two cups of flour. Two cups of cold water. A handful of ice cubes. Mix until gobby and not a second more.
I figured out how to cut rounds of Japanese eggplant to the ideal size – about four centimetres high – so they’d be melted and creamy on the inside. I figured out how thickly to slice sweet potatoes so they came out crunchy-sweet. (About twice as thick as a toonie.) I even learned the technique called hana sakasu, where you use your fingers to drip extra batter on shrimp while they’re frying, to give them the laciest, gnarliest, crunchiest crusts imaginable.
But it was when I brought a plate of tempura green beans to my wife that I knew I was ready. “OH MY GOD, YOU MADE THESE?” she said, stuffing her face like a toddler at a chocolate fountain. Mr. Cranky-san would have nothing on me.
For my first-ever all-tempura dinner party, there were four of us. We did it at the kitchen island, over bottomless rounds of sake, with cheesy but danceable J-pop on the stereo. I had bought the best scallops, shrimp, perch and smelt at the fishmonger’s that morning, as well as eggplant and green beans and a mountain of other vegetables. If I learned anything from watching Mr. Cranky-san – not to mention from Japanese Soul Cooking – it’s that great tempura is a product of rigorous organization and consistent technique. Once you nail a recipe and a method you never, ever stray.
On the night of my tempura party, I ignored all that. And so this is not the heroic ending you might be expecting. On the night of that tempura party I used Japanese potato starch instead of cake flour to dredge my fish and vegetables before the batter. I had never done this before. I have no idea what I was thinking.
My tempura came out golden on its outsides and juicy on its insides and perfectly ungreasy. It wasn’t crisp enough, though. It wasn’t nearly as crisp as it should have been.
The experience taught me a second tempura lesson, however – one that is just as important as rigorous organization and consistent technique. What I learned, standing there at the counter, laughing with my guests and slugging sake while we all stuffed our faces like, well, you know, is that even second-rate tempura is crazy-delicious tempura.
I’ll take it over Jerusalem artichokes any day of the week.
Try this at home: A master tempura recipe