Tempura is a wildly popular Japanese dish of deep-fried seafood and vegetables encased in a light yet most shatteringly crisp batter. Neither greasy or heavy. They are indeed the best fried food on earth! Learn how to make the crispy batter and perfect tempura at home.
When juicy plump shrimp, thinly sliced Japanese sweet potato, creamy eggplant, and fragrant shiso leaves get dunked in batter and deep-fried to light, irresistible crunch, you know you’re going to have some really good meal.
In Japan, Tempura (天ぷら) is serious stuff. Japanese chefs would spend years to master the technique of tempura frying. And home cooks will themselves in front of the hot oil in their tiny kitchens. All for the food we so love.
To make tempura worthy of your effort, freshness matters. So do the batter and deep-frying technique. Sure, making perfect tempura requires skills and practice, but I am here to tell you that it is possible to make the perfectly-airy, crispy, and non-greasy tempura right from your home.
Let’s learn all the secrets today!
History of Tempura
The tempura-style batter is said to have been brought to Japan by Portuguese missionaries in the 16th century, during the Muromachi period. However, as the cooking method of ‘deep-frying with flour batter’ was already established in Japan beforehand, the origin of tempura has been confused for a long time.
There are also a number of theories surrounding the etymology of tempura, which adds to the dubiety. Some sources believe the word tempura comes from ‘tempero’, which means ‘seasonings’ or ‘spices’ in Portuguese, while some cited the definition from Kanji (Japanese-Chinese characters).
What’s evident is tempura started to spread as street food and became a favorite among the common people in the early Edo period. With the increase of oil production, food stalls started selling tempura as a skewered snack food, alongside soba, sushi, and eel. By the late Edo and early Meiji era, tempura shops and restaurants emerged and started establishing its position as a specialty cuisine.
Today, you can find some best tempura houses in Japan, where all of your meals will be cooked by a highly trained chef who devotes his entire careers in tempura frying.
It cannot be any more true to say that tempura is one of Japan’s representative dishes.
What Ingredients to Use for Tempura
You can basically make tempura with a wide range of fresh ingredients, with the most common options that include seafood and root vegetables. There are also local tempura menus all over Japan that feature seasonal ingredients unique to the area.
The most popular tempura is, of course, Shrimp Tempura, also called Ebi no Tempura (海老の天ぷら) or Ebi Ten (えび天). In Japan, we use Japanese tiger prawns or Kuruma Ebi (車海老) that are large in size and have a sweet, buttery flavor. In the US, you can use black tiger shrimp or jumbo shrimp for tempura.
You can also find other seafood being fried up. Here are some of the delicious examples:
- Abalone (鮑, あわび)
- Barracuda (梭子魚, かます)
- Botan shrimp (牡丹海老, ぼたんえび)
- Chikuwa fish cake (竹輪,ちくわ)
- Cod (鱈, たら)
- Cuttlefish (墨烏賊, すみいか)
- Dagger-tooth pike conger, Conger pike (鱧, はも)
- Icefish (白魚, しらうお)
- Japanese sea bass (鱸, すずき)
- Japanese smelt (公魚, わかさぎ)
- Japanese tiger prawn (車海老,くるまえび)
- Japanese whiting (鱚, きす)
- Octopus (蛸, たこ)
- Orient clam (蛤, はまぐり)
- Oyster (牡蠣, かき)
- Pufferfish (河豚, ふぐ)
- Sakura shrimp (桜海老, さくらえび)
- Salmon (鮭, さけ)
- Scallop (帆立貝, ほたてがい)
- Sea eel (穴子, あなご)
- Sea bream (鯛, たい)
- Shirako, milt, soft roe (白子,しらこ)
- Shishamo (柳葉魚,ししゃも)
- Shrimp (海老, えび)
- Squid (烏賊, いか)
- White-flesh fish, white-fleshed fish, white fish (白身魚, しろみざかな)
Vegetables, Mushrooms & Seaweeds
For vegetable tempura, root vegetables such as sweet potato, Kabocha squash, and lotus roots are most ideal. Other popular ingredients such as Japanese mushrooms (shiitake and oyster), eggplants, okra, shiso leaves, and shishito peppers are also suitable for frying in the batter. In rural Japan, people even fry up wild edible plants and shoots like dandelion and fiddleheads for tempura.
When choosing vegetables, you’d want to avoid vegetables with high water content such as tomato, celery, and cucumber. They do not hold up the batter well, and the moisture will result in the vegetables getting burnt easily.
Here are some of the popular vegetables, mushrooms & seaweeds for tempura:
- Asparagus (アスパラガス)
- Avocado (アボカド)
- Baby corn (ヤングコーン)
- Bamboo shoot (竹の子)
- Bell Pepper (ピーマン)
- Bitter melon (ゴーヤー)
- Black-eyed pea (ささげ)
- Carrot (人参, にんじん）
- Corn (とうもろこし)
- Eggplant (茄子, なす)
- Fava bean (そら豆)
- Ginkgo seed (銀杏, ぎんなん)
- Gobo, Burdock root (ごぼう)
- Green beans (さやいんげん)
- Japanese Maple leaf (もみじの葉) – Common in Mino, Osaka prefecture
- Japanese mountain yam (山芋, やまいも)
- Japanese pickled ginger (紅しょうが) – Common in Osaka prefecture
- Japanese sweet potato (サツマイモ)
- Kabocha (かぼちゃ)
- Lily bulb (百合根, ゆりね)
- Lotus root (れんこん)
- Maitake mushrooms (舞茸, まいたけ)
- Matsutake mushrooms (松茸, まつたけ)
- Mountain vegetables (山菜, さんさい)
- Mozuku (edible seaweed) (藻付,もずく) – Common in Okinawa prefecture
- Myoga Japanese ginger (みょうが)
- Nori seaweed (海苔, のり)
- Okra (おくら)
- Onion (たまねぎ)
- Parsley (パセリ)
- Potato (じゃがいも)
- Romanesco (ロマネスコ)
- Shiitake mushroom (しいたけ)
- Shimeji mushrooms (しめじ)
- Shishito pepper (ししとう)
- Shiso leaves (大葉, 紫蘇の葉)
- White asparagus (ホワイトアスパラガス)
- Zucchini, Courgette (ズッキーニ)
Meat and Eggs
We don’t generally use meats because they are considered too heavy for tempura dishes. However, you can find chicken tempura in the Oita Prefecture of Kyushu region in Japan.
- Chicken (鶏, とり) – Common in Oita prefecture
- Egg (鶏卵, たまご)
- Quail eggs (うずらの卵)
How to Make The Best Tempura Batter
The success of your tempura is in the batter. To achieve the crispy texture, it’s very important to minimize the gluten formation in the batter as much as possible. Below are the tips to follow:
- Choice of flour – All-purpose flour is the most basic flour for tempura batter. Some people prefer using low-protein flours, such as cake flour or a mix with corn starch. For convenience, there is also a pre-mix tempura flour available. Personally, I always make my tempura batter from scratch using all-purpose flour, iced water, and egg.
- The recommended flour to water ratio is 1:1.
- A cold batter is absolutely necessary – Make sure all your ingredients (flour, water, egg) are cold. Keep your water refrigerated so it’s icy cold. This helps the batter cling on to the surface of the ingredients.
- Do not overmix the batter – Use chopsticks to mix for only a few seconds to at most a minute. It’s even helpful to leave some floury lumps in the batter. A lumpy batter contains more air and irregularities, which gives the tempura a light lacy layer that we’re after.
- Aim for consistency – The finished batter shouldn’t be too thin or too thick. I’ll go for a heavy cream consistency.
- Make batter right before you deep fry to reduce gluten activation.
The Deep Frying Technique
In Japanese cooking, deep frying is an art, and it takes some know-how and practice to execute desirable results. For the case of tempura, the hot oil enhances the natural sweetness and flavors of whatever you’re frying, at the same time, devoid of greasiness. Let’s take a look at how you can achieve that at home:
- Type(s) of oil for frying – Most tempura restaurants use untoasted sesame oil or their own special blend of oil. At home, you can also use a neutral-flavored oil such as vegetable or canola oil and simply add a touch of sesame oil for a deliciously nutty aroma.
- Ideal oil temperature for frying – Depending on the ingredients, we are looking at the range of 320-356°F (160-180°C).
- Keep the oil temperature steady at all times.
- Do not overcrowd the frying pot with ingredients – As a rule of thumb, only half of the oil surface should be covered with ingredients. So, deep fry in batches.
- Use a thermometer for precise temperature control, especially if you’re not familiar with deep frying.
- Turn the tempura regularly to ensure even cooking.
- Pick up crumbs in the oil between batches – You wouldn’t want any burnt crumbs to attach to your new tempura pieces or dilute the oil flavor.
How to Make The Best Tempura Dipping Sauce
Tempura is the best when you dip them in the delicious Tentsuyu (天つゆ) or Tempura Dipping Sauce. The sauce itself is delicate but has all the sweet-savory flavor you need to accentuate the enjoyment of fresh, hot tempura.
The sauce is made with 4 simple ingredients:
- Soy sauce
The same sauce can be used for donburi (rice bowl dishes), soba and udon noodles, simmered dishes (nimono), and many Japanese dishes.
The tempura dipping sauce can be put together quickly. When you made homemade dashi (either from scratch or from the convenient dashi packet/powder), save a portion to make the sauce. It will be ready in less than 5 minutes!
Here’s my Tentsuyu (Tempura Dipping Sauce) recipe.
How to Serve & Enjoy Tempura
Serve the hot-off-the-frying-pot tempura with tentsuyu dipping sauce along with the grated daikon that helps refreshen your palate. It makes a remarkable main dish to enjoy on its own.
Tempura also goes well with flavored salts such as matcha salt, yuzu salt, and curry salt.
Various Tempura Recipes to Try
Hungry? Find the detailed tips and techniques in each of the following tempura recipes!
Crispy and delicious homemade Shrimp Tempura! The secret to making a light, crisp coating that doesn’t absorb oil when fried is in the batter and deep-frying technique.
Who can resist delicious crispy homemade vegetable tempura? When making tempura at home, the goal is a crispy yet airy coating that doesn’t absorb oil when deep-fried. I’ll teach you how to achieve excellent results in this recipe.
Yes, you can now make Gluten-Free Tempura with a crispy batter at home. This recipe will show you how.
Chicken Tempura is a regional favorite in Oita Prefecture of Kyushu region in Japan. With a crispy and fluffy batter on the outside and juicy and tender meat inside, this Chicken Tempura is best enjoyed by dipping with karashi mustard ponzu sauce.
More Delicious Ways to Serve Tempura
Besides eating them straight off as a dish, you can also serve tempura as a topping or a side to accompany many other dishes like sushi and noodles.
On Just One Cookbook, I have shared many recipes featuring delicious tempura such as below:
- Soba Noodle Soup – Simple bowl of soba noodle soup topped with tempura, fish cake, and scallion.
- Ten Don (Tempura Donburi) – You get shrimp and vegetable tempura served over a rice bowl.
- Tensumu (Tempura Shrimp Rice Balls) – A Nagoya specialty, Tensumu is rice balls stuffed with shrimp tempura.
- Dragon Roll – An inside-out sushi roll featuring shrimp tempura and creamy avocado.
- Nabeyaki Udon – Topped with tempura, chicken & heaps of vegetables, Nabeyaki Udon is a hot noodle soup traditionally served in a donabe or iron pot.
Now that you’re armed with the knowledge of tempura-making, I hope you’re ready to fire up some delicious tempura at home!