KUALA LUMPUR, March 22 — This is a tale of two tempuras.
The first time I had really good tempura was when I was visiting the Tsukiji Fish Market in Tokyo. After gawking at tons of fresh seafood arriving from around the world and dodging a troop of stevedores whizzing about on “fish taxis”, I was utterly famished.
Fortunately no one goes hungry in the world’s biggest fish market. There are plenty of stalls and restaurants in the outer dry market area — everything from affordable ramen to wallet-breaking sushi and sashimi.
Given that it was a rainy morning when I visited the fish market though, there was nothing better than a bowl of soba noodles in piping hot soup. This bowl was especially good because it came topped with perfectly-fried prawn tempura — there’s something magical about the crispy batter melting tenderly into the hot broth.
Tempura may look pedestrian but it exemplifies the quintessential Japanese approach to cooking, which is to use the freshest and highest-quality ingredients. The point here is to allow the ingredients’ natural flavours to shine while adding a texture that delights the tongue and the eyes. Every piece of tempura takes on a different shape after frying; each a unique and special “batter” snowflake.
However, most of us wouldn’t dream of cooking tempura at home, expecting it to be the domain of professional tempura chefs. Better to leave it to the experts in a Japanese restaurant, we might say. Yet crispy, light-as-air tempura can be quite simple to achieve in a home kitchen, especially when you consider the ingredients for the batter are probably in your pantry already.
Furthermore, tempura is a versatile ingredient that can transform many a dish. You can have it with noodles such as soba (in a hot soup, like what I had at Tsukiji Fish Market, or served cold with a dipping sauce) or udon; you can have it on top of rice and doused with a sweet sauce — the ever-popular tempura don.
The trick is to start simple and small. I chose to begin with vegetable tempura. Vegetables are more forgiving than raw meat and seafood such as prawns and squid; as ingredients, they also tend to be cheaper failures if your first attempts at tempura don’t turn out quite right.
But why would you fail? To borrow a line from a famous TV chef: If I can tempura, so can you!
HOMEMADE VEGETABLE TEMPURA WITH ZARU SOBA
Traditionally, tempura batter in Japan is made of only three ingredients: flour, eggs, and cold water. However, with this formula, a lot of skill is needed to not over-mix the batter or else a lot of gluten will be formed. Gluten makes the tempura batter heavy and soggy — we want it to be light, airy and crispy.
Therefore, a quick fix is employed via the inclusion of baking soda and corn starch. The baking soda helps create an airy batter, which produces tempura as light as air. Corn starch is naturally gluten-free; this reduces the amount of gluten that can be formed in the batter.
Ideally, the batter should be mixed until it’s smooth and thick enough to coat the back of the ladle. Another tip is to use a mild-flavoured vegetable oil such as canola oil. On top of having a higher smoking point, canola oil won’t impart any strong taste to the tempura unlike say olive oil or coconut oil.
You can’t have a meal of tempura and zaru soba (chilled soba noodles) without an accompanying tentsuyu dipping sauce. Tentsuyu is usually a blend of dashi (the ubiquitous Japanese broth made from kelp and shavings of fermented skipjack tuna or bonito), soy sauce, and mirin (a sweet rice wine similar to sake). While bottles of tentsuyu concentrate are available from supermarkets, the dipping sauce tastes better when you make it fresh yourself.
(a) Vegetable tempura
100g plain flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
2 tablespoons corn starch
1 whole egg
250ml cold water
1 yellow zucchini (courgette)*
Half of a medium-sized squash*
1 medium-sized eggplant*
5-10 oyster mushrooms*
Canola oil for cooking
*Feel free to replace the above vegetables with your own choice of vegetables, such as pumpkin, okra (lady’s fingers), potatoes, sweet potatoes, etc.
• Mix the flour, baking soda and corn starch together. Sift the mixed flours and set aside. Beat the egg in a large mixing bowl. Add the cold water and continue whisking. Once the egg and water are well combined, add the sifted flours, about a third at a time, ensuring that the mixture is smooth before adding more.
• For the vegetables, cut them into pieces of roughly the same size to ensure they cook evenly. This means the zucchini, squash, and eggplant should be cut into 1 centimetre slices; the oyster mushrooms can be fried as they are (or cut into halves if they are very large).
• Next heat the oil up to 180 degrees Celsius in a large wok. If you don’t have a cooking thermometer, just drop a bit of the tempura batter into the oil. If the tempura batter sinks half way before floating to the surface of the wok, then it is the right temperature for frying.
• Dip each piece of vegetable into the bowl of tempura batter bowl one at a time. Make sure each piece is coated with batter before placing it into the oil. Fry one side before turning it over to the other side.
• Do not crowd the wok with too many pieces of vegetables; 3-4 at a time ensures the temperature of the oil does not drop too much. Drain each piece of vegetable tempura over the wok before placing it on some kitchen towels to drain further.
(b) Zaru soba
200g dried soba noodles
Lightly toasted nori seaweed, cut into thin strips (for garnishing)
1 piece young ginger, finely grated
Wasabi, to taste
• Boil water in a large pot. Once the water has come to a rolling boil, add the dried soba noodles and stir continuously. Cook for about 4 minutes (or according to the instructions on the package). Strain the soba immediately. Transfer the noodles to a bowl of ice water to chill and firm for about 2 minutes before straining again.
• Place soba on a long platter and garnish with nori strips. Add the grated ginger and a smidgen of wasabi on the edge of the platter. Serve the tempura, soba platter and tentsuyu dip (see below) together.
(c) Tentsuyu dipping sauce
3 tablespoons soy sauce
3 tablespoons mirin
• Mix the dashi, soy sauce and mirin well. Keep chilled in the fridge till needed. When serving, pour the tentsuyu sauce into two individual dipping bowls.
Yield: A light meal for two.
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