Tempura 天ぷら The Story
by Chef Lippe
Portuguese sailors were the first to “discover” the maritime route to Japan in the 16th century. As this meant a monopoly on an alternate route to the disputed “Silk Road” and the silk and spices trade, it was kept under lock and key as a State secret. Along with the sailors, came Portuguese missionaries, mainly Franciscans and Jesuits.
The Portuguese settled in Nagasaki 長崎 on the island of Kyushu from where trade was established. Unavoidable cultural exchange occurred, the missionaries having to adapt to the Japanese daily bathing, and the natives having to adapt to the westerner’s barbaric eating habits. In fact, the word used by the Japanese to describe westerners was (and still is) “gaijin” meaning barbaric.
One of the main points of friction between gaijin and Nippon (Japanese) was the food each consumed. Westerners were used to eating heavily cooked stews and many times fried food, whereas the native population’s diet consisted mainly of seafood, vegetables, and rice (Gohan) simply steamed, boiled, or grilled. Fried foods were known as a method of cooking for special occasions. As a matter of fact, to this day, rice is the main part of the traditional Japanese meal with the protein being a mere accessory.
One special time of the year, Lent, Westerners would not eat meat, but would not let go of their frying pans either, frying fish in heavy fritter batter. The period of Lent in Latin is called Quattuor Tempora. The Japanese created a much lighter batter with rice flour and called it “Tempura” in reference to the Latin name. Tempura went from the consumption at Lent, into the regular Japanese gastronomic universe during the rest of the 16th century, spreading through the land, and made popular by the “Yatai” (food cart) culture around the Tokyo Bay area in early 17th century. Tempura was perfected by the Yatai operators, who used minimalistic ingredients, flour, eggs, and cold water, to produce a light fluffy and crunchy batter they used to coat and fry vegetables and seafood.