That you can make a good tempura at home was a bit of a revelation to me. That it can be part of a healthy diet was even more surprising. Until recently my tempura cravings were usually indulged at Japanese restaurants, and I chose the word “indulged” carefully there because that’s just how the meals felt: indulgent. Piles of shrimp, carrots, cauliflower and broccoli, heavily batter-dipped and deep fried, served with a salty soy-based dipping sauce.
Now, there’s no getting around the fact that tempura is, indeed, a deep-fried dish. But even frying has its place when done correctly. Our corn kakiage was one of our first home forays into tempura land, inspired by a recipe from Nancy Singleton Hachisu in her wonderful cookbook Japanese Farm Food. In it, Nancy includes several tempura dishes but casually mentions that tempura is actually quite difficult to get right. Please don’t be dissuaded though. With a little practice, this is a dish that never fails to impress.
The Japanese were first introduced to tempura-style dishes by Portuguese Jesuit missionaries during the sixteenth century, quickly adopting and, in my opinion, elevating the dish to become even lighter and crisper. And therein lies the secret of healthy tempura, relatively speaking.
Once you’ve got a couple of techniques under your belt you’ll be able to turn out light and crispy tempura too, minimizing the amount of oil the vegetables soak up. Reducing the gluten by using a cake flour or mix of all-purpose flour and cornstarch, and then binding your batter not with eggs but with a carbonated liquid (in this case, seltzer water) and keeping the batter ice cold all help limit oil absorption during frying. And, by choosing seasonal veggies with high nutritional content and pairing your tempura with health-conscious sides, you can serve a meal that even your cardiologist would endorse.
The actual frying techniques aren’t difficult either but require attention during cooking. If you’ve got a three-year-old like mine, it might be a good idea to introduce a potty break for him or her BEFORE you start frying, because once you’re cooking you’re kind of stuck at the stove for a bit:
- Choose an oil like canola or soybean that has a high smoke-point and is lower in saturated fat than other oils commonly used for frying.
- Always keep the oil temperature high enough to ensure quick and even frying, but not so hot as to burn the tempura. In this recipe, 385 degrees is about right. Use a thermometer so that you not only know when the oil has reached the right temperature, but so that you can maintain that temperature throughout frying (if the temp drops too low, the tempura will cook less quickly and absorb a lot of oil).
- Don’t crowd the pot. Too many veggies in the oil will make it difficult to keep the temperature consistent. Resist the urge to drop everything in at once even if you think there is room.
- Keep the oil clean by skimming out any bits of errant batter and don’t re-use your oil more than once. Always filter any oil you’ll be reusing for a second frying session through a fine mesh sieve or cheesecloth.
- Drain your fried tempura well on several layers of paper towels or other absorbent material and don’t pile the tempura on top of one another when draining.
This is the perfect season for tempura, too. Some of the veggies that are most readily available — carrots, cauliflower, bell peppers, string beans, and onions — are sturdy enough to really hold up to this method of cooking. When sliced to a medium thickness and battered they stay crisp-tender even after a dip in the hot oil. You can also try mushrooms, broccoli, sweet potatoes, boiled and drained new potatoes, or even greens like broccoli rabe.
For our dinner we paired our vegetable tempura with rice, a couple of slices of leftover roast pork and a stir-fried celery and red pepper recipe from Japanese Farm Food. I like that vegetable tempura is both vegetarian and vegan and can easily be the star dish on the table, which need not include meat at all if you wish. We dressed our tempura simply, with a little soy sauce, but you can make an easy dipping sauce with rice wine vinegar, soy sauce and fresh ginger (two parts vinegar to one part soy, with grated fresh ginger to taste…you can add some chopped scallion as well if you wish, or a little sugar to taste).
Or, take this in an entirely different direction by serving your tempura over a steaming bowl of udon soup.
However you choose to enjoy it, I hope you give yourself permission to make tempura an occasional treat at your table. When you make it you may also find yourself surrounded by a hungry crowd that munches the vegetable tempura down as fast as you can turn it out. That’s not so bad: it’s better to eat these gems freshly fried than to let them sit for any length of time, so gather the clan early (though with all the hot oil, this is not the time to invite the little ones to be at the stove with you) and make this an interactive evening as you shuttle back and forth from stove to table. Just make sure to reserve the best bites for yourself…and make someone else do the clean up!
2 carrots, peeled and sliced on the bias into 1/4 inch thick ovals or, alternatively, 3-inch by 1/4-inch planks (by cutting on the bias you’ll increase the surface area, allowing more batter to stick to the carrot slices and also making them easier to fry)*
1/4 head of cauliflower, trimmed into bite-size florets*
1 medium green, yellow or red bell pepper, cut into 1/2-inch wide strips*
8 ounces whole string beans, trimmed*
Any other sturdy vegetables you want, such as onions or mushrooms, cut into bite-size pieces*
1 cup all-purpose flour, minus 2 tablespoons
2 tablespoons cornstarch
Pinch of Kosher salt
1 cup very cold seltzer water
6 ice cubes
Vegetable oil for frying (such as canola, soybean, or peanut oil)
Kosher salt for lightly sprinkling on tempura while it is cooling
Cooked white rice for serving (a Japanese or other Asian variety is preferable)
Soy sauce or dipping sauce for serving – see above for a recipe idea
Begin by heating oil at a depth of about two inches in a medium or large pot with high sides. Use a thermometer to indicate when the oil reaches 385 degrees.
Prepare a draining station by lining a baking sheet with a several-sheet thickness of paper towels or other absorbent material. Place near the frying station.
While oil is heating, prepare batter by sifting the flour, cornstarch and a pinch of kosher salt into a medium mixing bowl. Add the seltzer and ice cubes and stir quickly to combine. Don’t over-stir or batter will become glutenous and absorb more oil than necessary as it fries. It’s OK to have some small lumps in the batter. Keep an eye on the batter and remove the ice cubes to a clean bowl if they are melting into the batter too quickly. Replace them into the batter as needed to keep it ice cold. Cold batter will also help reduce oil absorption.
When the oil reaches 385 degrees, coat the cauliflower with batter and, working quickly, drop florets into the hot oil. Never crowd the pot; cook in several batches if necessary and maintain an oil temperature of 385 degrees. Using long chop sticks or tongs, rotate the florets as they begin to brown so that all sides become uniformly golden brown. Remove from the hot oil with a spider (a utensil with a long handle and mesh basket) and immediately drain on the paper towels. Sprinkle with a pinch of salt. Remove any bits of batter still floating in the oil with the spider.
When the oil comes back up to temperature, batter the carrots and cook them the same way, taking care as before not to crowd the pot. Remove from the hot oil with the spider and drain, sprinkling with a pinch of salt. Skim out any remaining bits of batter.
When you’ve finished cooking all the carrots, bring the oil back to temperature, batter the bell pepper strips and and cook them the same way. Follow these with the string beans, batter-dipped and fried the same way.
When all the vegetables have been cooked make sure to turn off the oil. Serve veggies immediately on a paper-towel lined serving plate with individual portions of soy sauce or dipping sauce and a bowl of cooked white rice.
Serves: 4 – 6 as a main course, 6 – 8 as a side
*A note about the veggies: oil and water don’t mix. Dry your veggies before coating with batter, especially if you’re using anything that was frozen and thawed. If there is a high water content in the veggies, the oil will pop and splatter. Not safe.
Kid rating: five stars (for the carrots, at least…maybe four for the cauliflower and string beans). When all is said and done, who doesn’t like fried food? Our girls probably ate more veggies the night we served this dish than they do most nights, but that doesn’t mean I’ve adopted this as a way to get them to eat more veg. It’s a great “sometimes treat” – another way to enjoy our vegetables, but not to over-indulge.
Parent rating: five stars. My husband was surprised how well this turned out at home. Cooked properly, tempura is light and crisp and addictive. And it can be both cooked properly AND cooked at home. It just takes a little attention and the results are splendidly delicious.