I often find tempura batter to be excessively heavy, too doughy or starchy and that detracts from the morsel in envelopes. It is particularly offensive on vegetables, whereas fish and shrimp can handle a slightly more substantial batter. It might surprise a few readers to know that tempura, a staple of Japanese cooking today, was probably introduced to the Japanese by the Portuguese a half-millenia or more ago. Yup, deep frying from the Europeans… At any rate, a really good tempura seems to getting harder and harder to find these days, so I was inspired to try a simple decades-old trick that we used to do at home. Club soda and flour and seasoned generously with salt. It’s so basic, but it yields the most amazing thin, crisp and ethereal batter, particularly for vegetables. I was combing through a food magazine recently, spied their version and realized, “hmmm, that isn’t such a new trick at all”…
For the tempura platter above, we prepared some very thin french green beans, eggplant, zucchini, kamote or sweet potatoes and shrimp. When everything was prepped, including the dipping sauce, grated radish and ginger, we sent the warning bell out to the family to be ready to sit down to lunch in about 15 minutes… To make the batter, I added one heaping cup full of all-purpose flour to a bowl (best if the flour is very cold, or has been stored in the freezer for an hour or more), and one 12 oz can of club soda that was put into the freezer 30-45 minutes before so it was almost icy. Use a whisk to bring this together and leave it a tad lumpy. Add two or three generous pinches of kosher or other fine sea salt while mixing. Using a wok, heat up roughly 3-4 inches depth worth of vegetable oil and bring it to about 360-370F, using a deep fry thermometer. Put a handfull of veggies in the batter, and carefully drop them gently into the hot oil and cooke for just a minute or two until crisp and lightly golden in some parts. Take out using a spider and plae on paper towels or a large paper napkin. Serve immediately. These beans and other vegetables were terrific. The batter really light and crisp, you can almost see and feel the bubbles in the batter “set” as it fried. They remain crisp for several minutes, but ideally, you should be frying small batches of vegetables or shrimp and consuming these soon after they emerge from the fryer. Delicious!
This link to a Saveur article on tempura has some wonderful tips and step-by-step photos. I would be inclined to use a slightly heavier batter, perhaps with an egg, for the coating on shrimp and fish. But there are loads of other tricks for you try as you attempt your own versions of tempura at home. Here are just some of them:
1. The oil – instead of vegetable oil, use peanut oil or a mixture of vegetable oil and peanut oil. The peanut oil has a distinct fragrance and taste that leaves that little something in the batter that takes it up a notch. You can also added sesame oil to your vegetable oil for that added flavor. Get yourself a deep-fry thermometer to check the temperature of the oil frequently. Our cook has this tendency to turn the heat down, thinking that slow-frying is always better. I have given up on explaining why some things must fry at 350-370F, so don’t ask, just do it. :)
2. The batter – some folks put an egg in the batter. With all-purpose flour. Or instead of all-purpose flour they use cake flour. I suspect Japanese cooks might recommend rice flour instead. And still others add cornstarch to help keep the fried product crisp longer. The science has to do with keeping the gluten from forming too much, hence the lower protein cake flour and minimal mixing or agitation. Same reason for the really cold temperature of the batter. You can keep your batter in a cold fridge before using, but don’t let all the soda water bubbles dissipate…
3. Make sure your veggies are cut in shapes that will take approximately the same time to cook, in other words, fairly uniform shape and volume. I like to cook by type of veggie per batch, to ensure even cooking times. After you have dipped the veggies in the batter and dropped them into the hot fat, you can dip your fingers in the batter and sprinkle droplets of batter onto the already frying veggies or shrimp, this adds texture to the finished tempura. Really experienced tempura chefs that I have watched doing this almost appear to be sticking their fingertips into the hot fat, which always somewhat fascinated me (I am not fond of deep frying considering the number of burns and splatters I have had)…
4. Drain on paper towels and arrange on a platter and serve immediately. We served this with some cold soba noodles on the side. The crisp batter and moist vegetables went really nicely with the cold soba noodles.
Japanese fix for the week satisfied. :)
By the way, if you venture off the “tempura” vein into just battered and fried veggies and protein, whether in Italy or the U.K. or elsewhere, the tips above become somewhat universal… Instead of club soda use beer for the same bubbly effect but now with more depth of flavor. Or infuse a bit of saffron and add that to the batter. Or add ground herbs and pepper to the batter. The more creative you get, the more you will crave the results. I bear no responsibility for potential weight gain, however. :)