No one knows for sure the origins of the Japanese word “tempura,” but one theory is my favorite.
The word is written with three picture characters: Ten, which is also the first part of the word for heaven; pu indicates a woman; and ra is a type of woven silk gauze.
Put them all together and you end up with something like “woman clad in silk gauze, giving a glimpse of heaven.”
That may be outdated, but it’s not a bad description of tempura — a delicious nibble fried in a light, gauzelike coating.
Tempura is all about the lightness of the coating; the more ethereal the better. It should be delicate and crisp, and should almost melt in your mouth.
What goes inside the coating is equally important, and the possibilities are close to endless. Tempura cooks for only a few short minutes — any longer and that gossamer coating will burn — but just about anything that can cooked in that time can be cooked tempura.
Shrimp is a classic. So are small or thin vegetables. Thin-sliced steak is popular, and also Alaskan king crab legs.
The best tempura I ever had was a soft-shell crab claw. The crab had just molted its shell that afternoon, and the claw was perfection — tender and briny, encased in a shatteringly delicate, light golden brown crust.
I don’t happen to have a crab that has just molted its shell, so I made do with shrimp and an assortment of veggies. The only question was about what kind of batter I would use.
The traditional batter is exquisitely simple: one cup of flour, one cup of water and one egg, though some add baking powder, and a bit of sugar can also be added.
A more modern update uses cornstarch in place of flour for a crispier crust and replaces the water with club soda, on the theory that the bubbles make the batter lighter.
I also checked out J. Kenji Lopez-Alt, who uses science to make cooking better. He agrees that the best tempura uses club soda and as much cornstarch as flour. But he also suggests an ingredient I never would have considered: vodka. It limits the development of gluten in the batter, he writes, which keeps the batter lighter for longer.
Which one to use? In the interest of science, I tried all three.
The traditional batter was the thickest of the bunch. It is the only one that is given time, 15 minutes, to set and thicken. As a result, the fried crust it created was the thickest of the three, but only by a little. The irresistible taste of the fried crust was also the most evident of the three, but again, only by a little.
The biggest distinction in the traditional batter appears to come from its small amount of sugar. The difference in taste is extremely subtle, if not nonexistent, but the sugar clearly makes the crust a bit browner. This slightly darker tempura is more visually appealing than its pale and wan rivals.
The modern update on the traditional method, the one that substituted cornstarch for flour, was particularly pale and wan, and also thin. It barely clung to the vegetables and shrimp it was attempting to coat.
It actually didn’t taste bad. But neither was there anything notable or memorable about it. If you think of batter-fried onion rings as a kind of tempura, and they are, then this version resulted in the limp and stringy onion rings found at the type of sports bars that are especially unremarked for their food.
It wasn’t as good as the other two. Frankly, I don’t recommend trying it (in fact, I’m not going to include the recipe, so there is no mistake).
The Lopez-Alt science-based version of tempura was lighter (in texture as well as color) than the traditional method, and more shatteringly crisp. It probably came closer to the ultimate tempura ideal.
However, it is also fussier to make. You have to have ice-cold soda water (I put a chilled can in a big bowl of ice water an hour before cooking), and you also have to have vodka. It would be best if the vodka were also ice cold, but the vodka I thought was in my freezer turned out not to be there. So I used regular room-temperature vodka, though a particularly nice brand.
Is this version a waste of good vodka? The recipe calls for two ounces, which is what would be poured as a shot at a good Russian restaurant. The question comes down to one of personal taste.
Which do you value more, a shot of vodka or the best tempura you could make?
Recipe adapted from “Japanese Country Cookbook” by Russ Rudzinski; serves 4
1 cup all-purpose flour
1 cup water
1 teaspoon granulated sugar
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1 pound peeled shrimp or 4 cups vegetables such as onion rings, green pepper slices, zucchini slices or spears, peeled and sliced sweet potatoes, mushrooms, sliced carrots, string beans or asparagus
In a medium bowl, combine flour, water, egg, salt, sugar and baking powder. Whisk thoroughly (or use egg beaters) until mixture achieves the consistency of whipping cream. Refrigerate 15 minutes. If mixture becomes too thick, stir in a little water until the consistency again resembles whipping cream.
Pour oil into a large pot to a depth of at least 2 inches. Bring temperature to 375 degrees (if you don’t have a thermometer, put a drop of the batter into the oil; it should fall to the bottom for a second, then rise to the top and sizzle gently. If it stays on the bottom the oil is too cold; if it immediately sizzles on top, it is too hot).
Dip shrimp or vegetables in batter and fry a few at a time (the temperature should drop to about 350 degrees). Flip a few times in the oil and fry on both sides until a light golden brown. Remove with a wire-mesh spider, strainer, slotted spoon or chopsticks to paper towels to drain. Serve with dipping sauce on the side, if desired.
Adapted from “The Food Lab,” by J. Kenji Lopez-Alt; serves 4
2 quarts peanut oil or vegetable shortening
1/2 cup cornstarch
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon salt, plus more for sprinkling
1 teaspoon sugar, optional
1 large egg
1/4 cup 80-proof vodka
1/2 cup ice-cold club soda
4 cups thinly sliced vegetables or 1 pound shrimp
Lemon wedges or dipping sauce (see recipe), for serving
Heat the oil to 375 degrees. If you don’t have a thermometer, put a drop of the batter into the oil; it should fall to the bottom for a second, then rise to the top and sizzle gently. If it stays on the bottom the oil is too cold; if it immediately sizzles on top, it is too hot.
Combine the cornstarch, flour, salt and sugar, if using, in a large bowl and stir to blend. Combine the egg and vodka in a small bowl and whisk until completely blended. Add the club soda and stir until barely combined. Immediately add to the bowl with the flour and, holding the bowl with one hand and a spoon in the other, shake the bowl back and forth while vigorously stirring until the liquid and dry ingredients are just barely combined. There should still be many bubbles and pockets of dry flour.
Add the vegetables and/or shrimp to the batter and fold with your hand to coat. Pick up the vegetables a few pieces at a time, allowing excess batter to drip off, and transfer to the hot oil, getting your hand as close as possible to the surface before letting go in order to minimize splashing.
Increase the heat to high to maintain the temperature as close to 350 degrees as possible, and add the remaining vegetables or shrimp a few pieces at a time. Immediately start agitating them with chopsticks, a wire-mesh spider or slotted spoon, separating the vegetables, flipping them and constantly exposing them to fresh oil. Continuing frying until the batter is completely crisp and pale blond, about 1 to 2 minutes.
Transfer tempura to a paper-towel-lined plate or baking sheet. Immediately sprinkle with salt, unless serving with a soy sauce-based dipping sauce. Serve with lemon wedges or a dipping sauce.
Basic Dipping Sauce
Recipe from “Japanese Country Cookbook” by Russ Rudzinski; serves 4
1 cup chicken stock
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1/2 cup soy sauce
2 tablespoons mirin or dry sherry
Combine all ingredients and divide into 4 bowls. Serve at room temperature or warmer.