Recipe of The Week
Tempura 天ぷら The Story
by The Well Seasoned Traveler
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 secret under lock and key for a century or so. Along with the sailors that arrived in Japan, 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 custom of daily bathing, unheard of in Europe at the time, and the natives having to adapt to the westerner’s barbaric eating habits. In fact, the word used by the Japanese to describe Portuguese westerners was “nanbaijin” meaning “southern barbarians”.
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 孫 悟飯) 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” 天ぷらin reference to the Latin name. Tempura went from the consumption by gaijin at lent, into the regular Japanese gastronomic universe during the 16th century, during the Muromachi period, spreading throughout the land, and made popular by the “Yatai” (food cart 屋台) culture around the Tokyo Bay area in the 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.
Tempura today, is an ambassador of Japanese food around the world.