Tempura: The Basics

Home-made style tempura

Tempura (天麩羅, or 天婦羅, tenpura, also written as “天ぷら”), which may be of Portuguese origin, is a popular Japanese dish of deep fried, battered seafood, or vegetables which has spread all the world!

The word tempura, or the technique of dipping fish and vegetables into a batter and frying them, comes from the word “tempora,” a Latin word meaning “times”, “time period” used by both Spanish and Portuguese missionaries to refer to the Lenten period or Ember Days (ad tempora quadragesimae), Fridays, and other Christian holy days.

Tempura at a Japanese Restaurant

In Japan, restaurants specializing in tempura are called tenpura-ya and range from inexpensive fast food chains to very expensive five-star restaurants. Many restaurants offer tempura as part of a set meal or an obento (lunch box), and it is also a popular ingredient in take-out or convenience store obento boxes. The ingredients and styles of cooking and serving tempura vary greatly through the country, with importance being placed on using fresh, seasonal ingredients.

Vegetables Tempura

A light batter is made of cold water and soft wheat flour. Eggs, baking soda or baking powder, starch, oil, and/or spices may also be added. Tempura batter is traditionally mixed in small batches using chopsticks for only a few seconds, leaving lumps in the mixture that, along with the cold batter temperature, result in the unique fluffy and crisp tempura structure when cooked. The batter is often kept cold by adding ice, or by placing the bowl inside a larger bowl with ice in it. Over-mixing the batter will result in activation of wheat gluten, which causes the flour mixture to become chewy and dough-like when fried.

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

Some varieties of tempura are dipped in a final coating, such as sesame seeds, before frying. Tempura generally does not use breadcrumbs in the coating.

Shrimps Tempura

Thin slices or strips of vegetables or seafood are dipped in the batter, then briefly deep-fried in hot oil. Vegetable oil or canola oil are most common, however tempura was traditionally cooked using sesame oil. Many specialty shops still use sesame oil or tea seed oil, and it is thought that certain compounds in these oils help to produce light, crispier batter.

When cooking shellfish, squid, or hard-skinned watery vegetables such as bell pepper or eggplant, the skin is usually scored with a knife to prevent the ingredients from bursting during cooking, which can cause serious burns from splashing oil.

Oil temperature is generally kept between 160 and 180 degrees Celsius, depending on the ingredient. In order to preserve the natural flavour and texture of the ingredients, care is taken not to overcook tempura. Cooking times range between a few seconds for delicate leaf vegetables, to several minutes for thick items or large kaki-age fritters.

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.

Tempura Tendon (on a bowl of rice)

Seafood: Prawn, Shrimp, squid, scallop, anago (conger eel), ayu (sweetfish), crab, and a wide variety of fish and shellfish.
Vegetables: bell pepper, kabocha squash, eggplant, carrot, burdock, green beans, sweet potato, yam, potato, renkon (lotus root), shiitake mushroom, mushrooms, bamboo shoots, okra.
There is no real limit, actually.
Keep in mind that it is probably the best way to appreciate wild mountain vegetables!

Tempura served on Soba!

Serving and presentation
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.

Kakiage on a bowl of rice

Kakiage is a type of tempura made with mixed vegetable strips, such as onion, carrot, and burdock, and sometimes including shrimp, which are deep fried as small round fritters.

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 and Kakiage Professional recipes coming soon!

Bread + Butter, Comestilblog, Greedy Girl, Bouchon For 2, Zoy Zhang, Hungry Neko, Mangantayon, Elinluv Tidbit Corner, Maison de Christina, Chrys Niles, Lexi, Culinary Musings, Eats and Everything, Bite Me New England, Heather Sweet, Warren Bobrow, 5 Star Foodie, Frank Fariello, Oyster Culture, Ramendo, Alchemist Chef, Ochikeron, Mrs. Lavendula, The Gipsy Chef

Please check the new postings at:
sake, shochu and sushi


12 thoughts on “Tempura: The Basics”

  1. Great post! Just got back from Japan, where my friend’s mother made tempura using a combination of soba flour and a little baking powder. Much nicer and less oily than traditional tempura. And other restaurants, instead of the traditional dipping sauce, we had either matcha with salt or yukari salt, both really delicious too.


  2. Hi Robert,
    Very well written post about tempura. I think the importance of some shops sticking to sesame oil is not only the crispiness but also the heavenly aroma of sesame oil. The price of sesame oil is several times more than your canola or any other vegitable oil so only the best shops use pure sesame oil and more others blend a ratio of sesame to add the aroma. Generally, when you walk into any good tempura specialty shop in Tokyo, you can smell sesame oil straight away.
    I just posted about a favourite soba shop here in Australia but he seems to come from a shizuoka background. Shimbashi is the name of the shop which seems to have originated and still operates in Shizuoka. Unfortunately they don’t do tempura that matches soba in my opinion. though.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s