Usually when I’m at home over the holidays, one night my mom will make some wonderful Japanese dinner. And I will think to myself, I should really ask Mom to show me how she makes that. And then I don’t. But this time, when I was home for Thanksgiving, I finally did. And the result is this amazing tempura, which is about a billion times better than the tempura you will get in just about any Japanese restaurant. And, once you get the hang of it, much easier than it might seem.
Why is this so much better? For one, it is so much hotter and crispier when you make it yourself and eat it right away. For two, you can use whatever you want, and in whatever quantity. Tempura is an incredibly flexible dish; just batter anything that is thinly sliced enough to cook through in a pot of hot oil, and you’re good to go. To that end, my mom indulged me this Thanksgiving vacation by frying some thin slices of fennel and of Meyer lemon in addition to the more usual Japanese ingredients (shrimp, eggplant, sweet potato) and her already innovative additions (scallops, oysters). Hence, the name tempura fritto misto, a redundancy of terms if there ever was one, but it gets my multicultural point across (without using the dreaded word that starts with an F and ends with -usion).
And the third reason is a Kawachi family trademark: panko, or Japanese breadcrumbs. Ever notice when you get tempura in a restaurant that the shrimp separates from the batter really easily, almost as if the batter is just this kind of gross fried casing on the shrimp? It shouldn’t be like that. The fried part should adhere, and it should be crunchy. Using panko achieves all that. Most restaurants don’t use panko, nor did the recipe we followed (on the back of the tempura batter box, yes, even Japanese people use shortcuts when it comes to make tempura). But apparently my obachan (grandmother, in English) did, and so now my mom does, too. Ingenious.
The final touch here were the sauces I made: a Meyer lemon aioli that I’ve written about here before, and a Japanese dipping sauce that I was making for the first time. Truth be told, in the Stanford/Kawachi household, we usually eat our tempura with, gasp, ketchup. Which is delicious. I mean, fried food and ketchup? That’s a rock solid combination. The aioli and the dipping sauce, however, were so so good and so so fast to make, that they may become staples of our tempura dinner as well.
Aioli + Japanese dipping sauce + ketchup? How much more multicultural can you get? Well, as a final note, I’d like to give a shout out to my Jewish background by pointing out that tempura/fritto misto is actually a great dish for Chanukkah. During Chanukkah, we are supposed to eat foods that are fried in oil, to commemorate the miracle that a tiny amount of oil lasted for eight nights, keeping the eternal flame lit while the Jews rededicated the Temple in Jerusalem after they once again barely managed to survive a threat to their very existence. Over the years, it has become traditional to make latkes (potato pancakes) and sufganiyot (donuts), but I see no reason not to shake it up a bit this year. Because nothing finishes off a meal of tempura like a game of dreidel.
Tempura Fritto Misto with Lemon Aioli and Japanese Dipping Sauce
– 1 ½ lbs. large, fresh shrimp, peeled and deveined (you can either do this or buy them this way; I buy them like this, my mom does it herself)
– 8 oysters (again, you can buy them pre-shucked or you can shuck; both my mom and I buy pre-shucked)
– 4 large sea scallops, sliced in half horizontally
– 1 fennel bulb, sliced vertically, with some fronds left
– ½ lb. Romano beans, trimmed
– 1 Satsuma (white-fleshed) sweet potato, peeled, cut into ¼-inch slices on the bias (i.e. diagonal)
– 1 zucchini, cut into ¼-inch slices on the bias
– 2 Japanese eggplants, cut into ¼-inch slices on the bias
– 3 lemons (Meyer or regular) cut horizontally into thin slices
– 1 box (10 oz./2 cups) tempura mix (we used Hime brand, which lists enriched wheat flour, cornstarch, and “leavenings” – ie. baking soda)
– 1 ½ c. ice water (really – put some ice cubes in a bowl and chill the water)
– 2 ½ c. or more panko (Japanese breadcrumbs)
– 48 oz. or more vegetable oil
You will also need: A pan deep enough for frying, a slotted spoon or other method of retrieving the tempura from the oil, and lots of paper towels. A splatter screen and chopsticks are also very helpful.
1. Heat oil over medium heat (it needs to get pretty hot, but you want to be in control of the speed it’s heating up).
3. Set up an assembly line: Have all your raw stuff sliced and prepped on a cutting board, then the tempura batter in one bowl, and the panko in another bowl (all lined up as near as possible to the oil).
4. Test the oil by dropping a small amount of batter into the oil. If the oil sizzles around it, then it’s ready; if the batter just kind of plops in there, then the oil needs to heat up more.
5. Either once the oil is ready, or while it is heating (depending on how long it takes), start battering the tempura. These photos use the example of the shrimp. First, drop a couple shrimp into the batter and turn them just to coat. Then remove them (using chopsticks, if you have them, to avoid the dreaded Club Hand), and drop them into the panko. Again, turn just to coat.
Step one: Dip in batter
Step two: Dip in panko
Ready to fry!
6. When the oil is ready, drop a couple shrimp into the pot. You want to make sure not to crowd the pot, or the frying won’t be as effective. Just be careful that the shrimp (or whatever you are frying) can float freely around.
7. Cook for a few minutes, checking frequently, until you get the hang of how long it takes the food to cook. The tempura is ready when it floats to the surface.
8. Remove, using a slotted spoon. Place on a baking sheet or plate, thickly lined with paper towels, to let the oil drain.
9. Eat immediately!
10. Repeat, making sure to let the oil heat back up between batches, and replenishing when necessary.
A couple other tips from Mom:
– Cook all of one type of item at the same time; that way the cooking time is uniform and you’re not trying to pull out some pieces of tempura while letting others stay in.
– Do the “water-iest” items last. In this list, that means you’d do shrimp, sweet potatoes, eggplant, and beans early. Then fennel, then zucchini, then scallops and oysters. Do the lemons last, not just because they’re watery, but also because they caramelize and kind of dirty the oil.
Japanese Dipping Sauce
Makes about 2 cups
– 1 package Dashi No Moto (a kind of fish bouillon, again we used Hime brand)
– 3 cups boiling water
– 5 Tbsp. soy sauce
– 3 Tbsp. mirin (a type of rice wine)
1. Make dashi (fish stock): Bring 3 cups water to boil. Add packet of Dashi No Moto (it comes like a tea bag, with the stock base inside a muslin wrapper). Bring water down to a simmer; let simmer ten minutes. Take off heat.
2. For dipping sauce: Combine 2 cups dashi, soy sauce, and mirin in a pot. Bring to a boil. Take off heat once the sauce comes to a boil. Ta-dashi!