Tempura is a wildly popular Japanese dish of deep-fried seafood and vegetables encased in a light yet most shatteringly crisp batter. Neither greasy or heavy. They are indeed the best fried food on earth! Learn how to make the crispy batter and perfect tempura at home.
Shrimp and vegetable tempura on a plate along with the dipping sauce.
When juicy plump shrimp, thinly sliced Japanese sweet potato, creamy eggplant, and fragrant shiso leaves get dunked in batter and deep-fried to light, irresistible crunch, you know you’re going to have some really good meal.
In Japan, Tempura (天ぷら) is serious stuff. Japanese chefs would spend years to master the technique of tempura frying. And home cooks will themselves in front of the hot oil in their tiny kitchens. All for the food we so love.
To make tempura worthy of your effort, freshness matters. So do the batter and deep-frying technique. Sure, making perfect tempura requires skills and practice, but I am here to tell you that it is possible to make the perfectly-airy, crispy, and non-greasy tempura right from your home.
Let’s learn all the secrets today!
Tempura at Tsunahachi in Shinjuku, Tokyo | Easy Japanese Recipes at JustOneCookbook.com
The tempura-style batter is said to have been brought to Japan by Portuguese missionaries in the 16th century, during the Muromachi period. However, as the cooking method of ‘deep-frying with flour batter’ was already established in Japan beforehand, the origin of tempura has been confused for a long time.
There are also a number of theories surrounding the etymology of tempura, which adds to the dubiety. Some sources believe the word tempura comes from ‘tempero’, which means ‘seasonings’ or ‘spices’ in Portuguese, while some cited the definition from Kanji (Japanese-Chinese characters).
What’s evident is tempura started to spread as street food and became a favorite among the common people in the early Edo period. With the increase of oil production, food stalls started selling tempura as a skewered snack food, alongside soba, sushi, and eel. By the late Edo and early Meiji era, tempura shops and restaurants emerged and started establishing its position as a specialty cuisine.
Today, you can find some best tempura houses in Japan, where all of your meals will be cooked by a highly trained chef who devotes his entire careers in tempura frying.
It cannot be any more true to say that tempura is one of Japan’s representative dishes.
What Ingredients to Use for Tempura
You can basically make tempura with a wide range of fresh ingredients, with the most common options that include seafood and root vegetables. There are also local tempura menus all over Japan that feature seasonal ingredients unique to the area.
Shrimp tempura on a plate along with the dipping sauce.
The most popular tempura is, of course, Shrimp Tempura, also called Ebi no Tempura (海老の天ぷら) or Ebi Ten (えび天). In Japan, we use Japanese tiger prawns or Kuruma Ebi (車海老) that are large in size and have a sweet, buttery flavor. In the US, you can use black tiger shrimp or jumbo shrimp for tempura.
You can also find other seafood being fried up. Here are some of the delicious examples:
Abalone (鮑, あわび)
Barracuda (梭子魚, かます)
Botan shrimp (牡丹海老, ぼたんえび)
Chikuwa fish cake (竹輪,ちくわ)
Cod (鱈, たら)
Cuttlefish (墨烏賊, すみいか)
Dagger-tooth pike conger, Conger pike (鱧, はも)
Icefish (白魚, しらうお)
Japanese sea bass (鱸, すずき)
Japanese smelt (公魚, わかさぎ)
Japanese tiger prawn (車海老,くるまえび)
Japanese whiting (鱚, きす)
Octopus (蛸, たこ)
Orient clam (蛤, はまぐり)
Oyster (牡蠣, かき)
Pufferfish (河豚, ふぐ)
Sakura shrimp (桜海老, さくらえび)
Salmon (鮭, さけ)
Scallop (帆立貝, ほたてがい)
Sea eel (穴子, あなご)
Sea bream (鯛, たい)
Shirako, milt, soft roe (白子,しらこ)
Shrimp (海老, えび)
Squid (烏賊, いか)
White-flesh fish, white-fleshed fish, white fish (白身魚, しろみざかな)
A plate containing assorted vegetable tempura.
Vegetables, Mushrooms & Seaweeds
For vegetable tempura, root vegetables such as sweet potato, Kabocha squash, and lotus roots are most ideal. Other popular ingredients such as Japanese mushrooms (shiitake and oyster), eggplants, okra, shiso leaves, and shishito peppers are also suitable for frying in the batter. In rural Japan, people even fry up wild edible plants and shoots like dandelion and fiddleheads for tempura.
When choosing vegetables, you’d want to avoid vegetables with high water content such as tomato, celery, and cucumber. They do not hold up the batter well, and the moisture will result in the vegetables getting burnt easily.
Here are some of the popular vegetables, mushrooms & seaweeds for tempura:
Baby corn (ヤングコーン)
Bamboo shoot (竹の子)
Bell Pepper (ピーマン)
Bitter melon (ゴーヤー)
Black-eyed pea (ささげ)
Carrot (人参, にんじん）
Eggplant (茄子, なす)
Fava bean (そら豆)
Ginkgo seed (銀杏, ぎんなん)
Gobo, Burdock root (ごぼう)
Green beans (さやいんげん)
Japanese Maple leaf (もみじの葉) – Common in Mino, Osaka prefecture
Japanese mountain yam (山芋, やまいも)
Japanese pickled ginger (紅しょうが) – Common in Osaka prefecture
Japanese sweet potato (サツマイモ)
Lily bulb (百合根, ゆりね)
Lotus root (れんこん)
Maitake mushrooms (舞茸, まいたけ)
Matsutake mushrooms (松茸, まつたけ)
Mountain vegetables (山菜, さんさい)
Mozuku (edible seaweed) (藻付,もずく) – Common in Okinawa prefecture
Myoga Japanese ginger (みょうが)
Nori seaweed (海苔, のり)
Shiitake mushroom (しいたけ)
Shimeji mushrooms (しめじ)
Shishito pepper (ししとう)
Shiso leaves (大葉, 紫蘇の葉)
White asparagus (ホワイトアスパラガス)
Zucchini, Courgette (ズッキーニ)
Chicken tempura served in a bamboo basket.
Meat and Eggs
We don’t generally use meats because they are considered too heavy for tempura dishes. However, you can find chicken tempura in the Oita Prefecture of Kyushu region in Japan.
Chicken (鶏, とり) – Common in Oita prefecture
Egg (鶏卵, たまご)
Quail eggs (うずらの卵)
How to Make The Best Tempura Batter
Tempura – How to Make Best Tempura | Easy Japanese Recipes at JustOneCookbook.com
The success of your tempura is in the batter. To achieve the crispy texture, it’s very important to minimize the gluten formation in the batter as much as possible. Below are the tips to follow:
Choice of flour – All-purpose flour is the most basic flour for tempura batter. Some people prefer using low-protein flours, such as cake flour or a mix with corn starch. For convenience, there is also a pre-mix tempura flour available. Personally, I always make my tempura batter from scratch using all-purpose flour, iced water, and egg.
A cold batter is absolutely necessary – Make sure all your ingredients (flour, water, egg) are cold. Keep your water refrigerated so it’s icy cold. This helps the batter cling on to the surface of the ingredients.
Do not overmix the batter – Use chopsticks to mix for only a few seconds to at most a minute. It’s even helpful to leave some floury lumps in the batter. A lumpy batter contains more air and irregularities, which gives the tempura a light lacy layer that we’re after.
Aim for consistency – The finished batter shouldn’t be too thin or too thick. I’ll go for a heavy cream consistency.
Make batter right before you deep fry to reduce gluten activation.
The Deep Frying Technique
Tempura – How to Make Best Tempura | Easy Japanese Recipes at JustOneCookbook.com
In Japanese cooking, deep frying is an art, and it takes some know-how and practice to execute desirable results. For the case of tempura, the hot oil enhances the natural sweetness and flavors of whatever you’re frying, at the same time, devoid of greasiness. Let’s take a look at how you can achieve that at home:
Type(s) of oil for frying – Most tempura restaurants use untoasted sesame oil or their own special blend of oil. At home, you can also use a neutral-flavored oil such as vegetable or canola oil and simply add a touch of sesame oil for a deliciously nutty aroma.
Ideal oil temperature for frying – Depending on the ingredients, we are looking at the range of 320-356°F (160-180°C).
Keep the oil temperature steady at all times.
Do not overcrowd the frying pot with ingredients – As a rule of thumb, only half of the oil surface should be covered with ingredients. So, deep fry in batches.
Use a thermometer for precise temperature control, especially if you’re not familiar with deep frying.
Turn the tempura regularly to ensure even cooking.
Pick up crumbs in the oil between batches – You wouldn’t want any burnt crumbs to attach to your new tempura pieces or dilute the oil flavor.