Portugal may now be a pleasant minnow of Europe, but in the 16th century it was the dominant world explorer, leaving culinary footprints at its major colonies and more fleeting encounters.

In Japan tempura is a legacy of Portugal’s brief presence in the south.

Tempura vegetables
Tempura vegetables

As a coating for vegetables or seafood, tempura batter is a much-admired icon of Japanese cuisine, lighter and more delicate than western-style batters. It’s what you might expect from deep-fried cooking after a couple of centuries in the hands of master sushi chefs.

Portugal was in expansion mode in the 16th Century, but Japan was not for conquering. It was a highly sophisticated and militarised land when the Japanese first encountered shipwrecked Portuguese sailors in 1543. Most Japanese were unaware Caucasian people existed. But they were interested in their guns and soon allowed trade to commence through Nagasaki in the south, then just a tiny fishing village.

Over the next thirty years the powerful religious arm of the Portuguese crown, the Jesuit missionaries, also arrived to convert locals to Catholicism.

It was a relatively short but profound influence. About 300,000 people converted, while Portuguese food, art and language were offered up alongside religion.

Tempura is likely to be a descendent of the dish peixinhos da horta – beans deep-fried in batter, or literally “little fish from the garden” [see this Portuguese Flavours blog for a picture]. On days the Catholic Portuguese were unable to eat meat and poultry they prepared fish and vegetable dishes as their main meals. The name tempura comes from ‘tempora’ referring to the ‘time period’ of these semi-fasting holy days.

As well as tempura batter, the Portuguese introduced breadcrumbs, which the Japanese turned into the light ‘panko’ crumb, and the castella sponge cake, which is now popular throughout Japan.

By the 1580s Japan’s ruling dynasty saw the expansion of Christianity as a threat to Japanese political stability. Missionaries were expelled and in 1614 Christian activity was banned altogether. In 1639 Japan became a closed country. Apart from a few select trading ports (Nagasaki included), it was illegal for Catholics to enter Japan and for Japanese people to leave it.

Meanwhile the battered vegetables had become, by the 1770s, a popular street food. According to the History and Culture of Japanese Food, cheaper oils like rapeseed became widely available, setting the stage for deep-fried food to proliferate. Chinese-influenced shippoku cuisine also had deep-fried components that became popular over this period. At the street stalls customers ate standing and did not use chopsticks, instead the battered items were cooked and eaten straight away on bamboo skewers.

How to make tempura

I used a tempura mix from Japan Mart combined with ice-cold water to make up a loose batter. I used lengths of butternut squash (parboiled) and courgettes.

This video on the Guardian website shows how to cook tempura.

I’m not experienced in deep-frying (I was horrified to use a bottle of canola oil and even more alarmed when my candy thermometer cracked testing the oil temperature) – but I found cooking tempura vegetables to be pretty straightforward once the vegetables finally made it into the pan.

They didn’t look as pretty and lacy as tempura from the professionals, but they did have that trademark transparency and were light and crunchy.

Delicious dipped in tentsuyu sauce (also available at Japan Mart)

Japan Mart, 435 Khyber Pass Road, Newmarket, ph (09) 522 8291.

Where to eat tempura in Auckland

Cocoro, under chef Makoto Tokuyama, is a leading light of contemporary Japanese dining in Auckland – and makes incredible tempura.

Cocoro, 56 Brown St, Ponsonby (09) 360 0927

A cheaper and still delicious option for lunch or dinner is 601 New North Road.

601 New North Road, Morningside (09) 849 7268


2 Comments Add yours

  1. Alessandra says:

    Clever Japanese kicking out the missionaries and keeping the tempura :-)!
    I love tempura, especially with soba, of course I only make the vegetable one (and the dipping sauce had to be vegetarian too for me). Lovely article Claire!


    1. Claire says:

      Thanks Alessandra. Yes, smart move, flying in the face of colonisation…
      Have seen the Japanese vegetarian recipes on your site: Japanese vegetables with miso and sesame dressing and tofu puffs in vegetable stock sound delicious.

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