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.
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
This recipe is adapted from Japanese Soul Cooking, by Tadashi Ono and Harris Salat.
1. Begin by washing, thoroughly drying and trimming an assortment of vegetables into bite-sized pieces. Whole green beans, shishito peppers, sliced Japanese eggplant, small broccoli florets, whole shiso leaves and coins of Japanese sweet potato are all good options. Bite-sized fish-fillet slices, small fish like smelt and halved scallops are also ideal.
Set them on paper towels near your cooking station.
You’ll also need 1/2 cup of cake flour in a shallow dish, for dredging, a pair of long chopsticks or tongs, a metal mesh skimmer and a rack or plate covered with newspaper or paper towel, for draining the finished tempura.
2. In a large, heavy pot (an enamelled cast-iron Dutch oven is ideal), heat two inches of vegetable oil and a glug of toasted sesame oil to 360 F. There should be at least a few inches of space remaining in the pot above the oil. Use a deep-fat or candy thermometer to keep the temperature stable.
3. Mix two egg yolks with two cups of ice water in a large bowl and add three ice cubes. Measure out two cups of cake flour and dump it in one shot into the wet ingredients. Holding four chopsticks in your fist, stab at the batter for about 30 seconds until it is just barely mixed. There should be gobs of floating flour still, and flour stuck to the side of the bowl.
4. Working two or three pieces per batch until you have the hang of it, dip the raw ingredients in your cake flour to dredge, then into the batter to coat. Transfer quickly into the hot oil, regulating the temperature at 360 F by increasing and lowering the heat slightly if necessary (do not overreact with the burner or you’ll experience huge spikes and drops). If you add too many pieces at once, the oil temperature will plummet.
Harder vegetables take about 3 minutes; softer vegetables and fish 2 minutes or less. They’re done when the batter has turned an appealing blond colour and smells slightly nutty.
Remove from oil with chopsticks or tongs, drain for a few seconds, season with flaky sea salt and serve immediately with ten tsuyu dipping sauce (see recipe, below), and lemon wedges for the seafood.
5. Scoop out stray tempura bits with the metal skimmer between batches, and keep on top of your oil temperature. If you’ve been cooking for more than 25 minutes or so, make a fresh batch of batter. Take a sip of sake. Repeat.
Ten tsuyu dipping sauce
Though this sweet-savoury-salty sauce may look difficult to make, it takes about 10 minutes of active time. The ingredients can be found at any good Asian grocer.
1. Combine four cups of cold water and one large (about 15 centimetre) piece of kombu (dried kelp) in a small pot. Let steep for 30 minutes.
2. Bring to a boil over medium heat, remove kombu and discard. Add a tablespoon of cold water to the pot to reduce temperature slightly, then add 20 grams (11/2 packed cups) of shaved bonito. Return stock to a boil, then lower heat and simmer for five minutes, skimming any scum that rises to the surface. Turn off heat, steep for 15 minutes, strain through a fine sieve or cheesecloth. Your house smells awesome, right? You now have a dashi.
3. Combine 1 cup of dashi with 1/4 cup soy sauce and 1/4 cup of mirin in a pot over medium heat. Bring to a boil, then immediately turn off heat. Reheat when ready to serve, adding a small (4 cm) piece of daikon, finely grated, and a 1 cm piece of peeled ginger, grated, to the sauce to serve.