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Thursday, 9 August 2012

Tempura 101

So, we were with friends this past weekend, in picture-perfect Annecy, nestled high up in the French Alps, and besides admiring our pristine, spectacular surroundings every few minutes – because Annecy is physically stunning guys, just stunning – pretty much all we did was cook, eat, sleep, repeat. Which is what I would call a decidedly productive way to spend a weekend. The little time left over not spent conducting the above activities was spent discussing food. Yup, exciting lot of people, we are.


Right, so in the course of these many endless conversations - all uniquely centred around food and all it's glories - we asked each other several ranking type questions. You know, top 10 favourite restaurants in London, top 10 hamburger joints, top 10 world cuisines and so on.


Just when I thought I am getting way too old for surprises, I went and did it!
I surprised myself.

Because it appears (yes, much to my own surprise) that all things Japanese seem to hold a position of remarkably high esteem in my little food-obsessed mind.
Lets see:
My favourite restaurant? Japanese
My number 1 cuisine? Japanese
My death-row meal? (yes, we’re a rather cheery bunch of folks) Japanese
My first date with Sid? No prizes for guessing. It so happens that it was a little Japanese restaurant on 48th and Broadway, called Hakata.
And thus, over sushi and chopsticks, we fell in love. 

Well, yes – if you believe in coincidence.
I’m more in the conspiracy theory camp. Which means simply that in some future life, I will be re-born, a pink Hello Kitty with red ribbons in my hair.

Anyway, anyway.

Whichever way you want to look at it, what cannot be denied is that the above realities render the below realties very unacceptable indeed:
Which are that, one - I’ve never been to Japan. And two - I’ve never cooked Japanese food in my life. Never. Ever.
Note to self: must fix.

And while I know that the first will take a fair bit of vacation time and funds, both of which I’m running dangerously low on right now, I’m about to embark on the second.

And I mean, right now.

And so without any further delay in allowing me to reach my ultimate destiny (meow), I give you, Japanese Vegetable Tempura.

Here’s what you need:
Please use whatever vegetables you have on hand. This is what I had…

- 2 small eggplants
- 2 small courgettes
- 1 small sweet potato
- 4 shiitake mushrooms
- 1 red pepper

For the batter:
- 1 egg
- A jug of ice water, 250 ml + few ice cubes
- 85g plain flour (all purpose flour)
- 1 tbsp corn flour
- Groundnut or sunflower oil , for deep frying

For the dipping sauce:
- 2 tbsp soy sauce
- 2 tbsp sesame oil
-1 tbsp brown sugar
- Grated daikon radish (if possible)

Here’s how you do it:

First cut the vegetables in a way that makes them easy to dip in the batter and then fry. So, for example, take the end off the eggplants, and slice into wide strips lengthwise. Cut the sweet potato into rounds with the skin on. Cut the zucchini and the red pepper into strips. Leave the mushrooms whole.

Spread out the cut vegetables into a single layer on paper towels, and leave to dry. The vegetables should be completely dry before coating with batter.
The dipping sauce simply involves mixing together all the sauce ingredients in a bowl.
Making tempura batter:
Do this just before you start frying – premixed batter that’s been lying around will definitely make the end product soggy. So, make it, cook it, eat it. Simple.
Right, so to make the batter, mix the egg and water together, then add the flours, whisking rapidly with a fork. A few lumps in the mixture don’t matter, and floating ice cubes are fine - they’ll help to keep the batter cool, which is really important.
Batter mixed, pour the oil into a heavy pot that retains heat well. I use a crimson red Le Creuset, which is a cast iron enamelled pot that I love! Mainly because it goes with my style. Just kidding! It's just strong and deep and keeps the heat well. And so I'm using it. Of course, you can use a wok too.
Heat up the oil – it should get to about 175 - 195 C. You can test the temperature by dropping a bit of batter in the oil. If the batter drops down and then shoots up to the surface immediately, the oil is hot enough.
Keep a large plate or tray ready, lined with paper towels to absorb the oil after frying.
Ready? Set? Go!
I dip each vegetable piece in the batter individually to get a thin, almost transparent coating. I’ve seen experts do veggie strips in bundles, picking up a few at a time with chopsticks and dipping them in the batter together – I’m too amateur for this right now, but just saying – if you’re brave enough, go for it!
Start with the more delicate vegetables first, such as the courgettes, which only take a few seconds. Proceed to the firmer or thicker vegetables, so for example the sweet potato slices should be last. The amount of time each thing should be cooked depends on the vegetable – but it ranges from a few second to a few minutes, at most. Only do 3-4 pieces at a time, try not to overcrowd the wok.
The secret is: don't over-mix the batter, or let it stand; keep the batter ice-cold as it prevents the batter from absorbing too much oil. Keep the oil hot, try not to coat the ingredients with too much batter and don't fry too many pieces at once as this will reduce the temperature of the oil.

Ok, now drain each piece on the prepared paper-lined plate – keep the pieces separate from each other, leaving a space between them.
Serve tempura along with dipping sauce when it’s piping hot, for maximum crispiness.
Done! Perfect tempura; crisp, golden brown, hot and delicious.
By the way, here’s another bit of trivia (in the remote possibility that you're interested) - I’ve spent much of my life afraid of deep-fried food. Yup, you heard me – afraid. Afraid it’ll make me fat, afraid the grease won't leave my hands or my kitchen counters or my plates, despite countless washing and the best of what the wild and wonderful world of detergent has to offer, afraid the smell of deep fried batter will remain sunk into the deep recesses of my upholstery for ever and ever after and that eventually, just like the ending of a very sad story - my home will smell like McDonalds. And of all the terrifying thoughts in the world, that has to be the most terrifying of them all.

So, yes, deep fried food made me afraid.

But this was before the Tempura age.
Now, I am living IN the Tempura age.
And I'm happy to report that I'm no longer afraid.
My jeans still button (well, the top one does). My hands don’t smell of grease. Nor my kitchen counters. Nor my plates. Nor my sofas. And nor – thankfully – does my house.
Yes, my friends, Fear has left me for greener pastures. 
And so I think it's fair to say that Tempura changed my life.
Or am I being too dramatic??

But on a serious note (ha!) it’s amazing, if you step back and think about it – how much the food of a culture reflects the culture itself. Think of sushi: neat little pieces, side by side, arranged in rows in small, perfect little boxes. No oil, no spices, no smell, no mess. And a perfect score on flavour. How do they do this? Miso Soup: have you tasted anything more delicious that is so ridiculously unassuming? Hot water, miso paste, wakame seaweed, tofu. That’s it. And yet, there’s absolutely nothing in the world like a hot bowl of Miso Soup on a cold, foggy day to lift up your spirits and warm your soul. Tempura: small, bite-sized bits of seafood and vegetables cooked in a manner that enhances the taste of the underlying item, not masks it. There’s no stodgy dough here, no thick, tasteless batter downing out flavours, no grease, no food colouring, no exotic ingredients that exist in someone else's world. Nope. And yet, how fantastic is Tempura? Crispy, light and so very subtle.

And so it is with the Japanese themselves: these admirable people who come with absolutely no "show". You can't help but respect them – their precise, neat little ways, their zen-like calm, their soft-spoken, polite habits, and yes – the quiet dignity in which they silently, speedily, efficiently and self-sufficiently beat a natural disaster of the scale of the 2011 Tsunami. In fact, I can sit in front of a map of the world and I’d be hard pressed to think of even one other country that could match Japan’s comeback in the face of such extreme devastation. Kudos to the unparalleled Japanese resiliency of spirit, the ethic of ingenuity and industry.

It’s true: You are what you eat.

I’m off to Nobu tonight, thanks to a business associate (and his expense account). Thank god for business associates (and their expense accounts).

I’m very excited, because Japanese food always gets me excited.
I’ll be sure to order some tempura and let you know how mine stacks up to the professionals!

Meanwhile, give this a go – do. It’s not as hard as it seems, and it’s SO worth it.
I'm eating it right now, and if I were a cat, I'd be purring.
But I'm not.  But that's ok because one day I will be. And one with red ribbons, at that.

Much love.

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