Tempura Transcript

The Kitchen

GUESTS: Tempura Monster

    I think it's safe to say that we have done our fair share of frying on this program. After all, we have pan-fried, we have wok-fried, we have sautéed, deep fat-fried. Why, we dedicated two entire episodes to the attainment of golden-brown deliciousness. Alas, that was all child's play compared to ... [crashing noises, apparently from outside] Did you hear a ...?  Anyway, as I was saying, there exists in the pantheon of fried food a dish of such lethal cunning, such devilish design ... [another loud crash shakes the camera] ... such confounding delightfulness, such terrifying, nitpicking brilliance, that it could only come from Japan. [another loud crash] Ah, this must be construction or something. The method I speak of is mythic and magical, and it's haunted the dreams of many a chef. I speak, of course, of the infamous ... [opens the window, and looks out] Aah! Tempura!

TEMPURA MONSTER: [roars, Godzilla-like, and tries to knock over a building]

    It is the horrible monster, Tempura, who comes ashore every 100 years to feast on the flesh of cooks! [cut to a shot of cooks running and screaming]

TM: [catches and eats a cook]

    Oh, the humanity! Who will save us?
    [from back inside the kitchen] Okay, is tempura really a monster? No. It is simply the pinnacle of the frying arts. It seems like a monster because doing it right can be so darn daunting. Even most Japanese cooks don't dare attempt it at home. When they want tempura, they go to a tempura restaurant. And yet, you know, if we stand up and fight our irrational fears with sound science, simple, everyday ingredients, well-tuned techniques, and basic-issue hardware, tempura can magically morph from monstrous, to monstrously ...

[Good Eats theme]

Japanese Restaurant

GUEST: Server

    In Japanese cuisine, there are several forms of deep-fried foods, or "agemono", one of which is "koromo-age", or batter-fried foods. Now the most typical batter-fried food is tempura, which is composed of lightly battered vegetables and fish which are quick-fried.
    Now before attempting this feat of edible legerdemain at home, you may wish to seek out a Japanese restaurant with a reputation for tempura. If the establishment is tempura-serious, the distance between hot oil and patron will be as short as possible, as tempura should be consumed as soon as it, you know, won't burn off the inside of your mouth

SERVER: [brings a plate of tempura]

    Ooh, here's some of my favorite, sweet potato.

AB: Arigato.
S: [nods and leaves]

    It's interesting to note that like so many technologies perfected by the Japanesefrom transistor radios to trains, cell phones to peachestempura is a western import, okay? Now in 1494, ...


... Spain and Portugal signed the Treaty of Tordesillas, which divided all newly discovered lands, meaning most of the planet, between them for the purpose of bringing Catholicism and, of course, trade, to the heathen world, a mission for which they had the blessing of the Pope.
    Now Japan fell into Portugal's territory. And in 1549, a Jesuit by the name of Francis Xavier landed at Kagoshima and began his good work. Now by converting the nobility first, the Portuguese met with considerable success initially, even teaching the Japanese a few culinary tricks to help them navigate Catholic fasting days such as the quattuor tempora, I think, which took place every quarter of the year. Now during this time, the clergy consumed mostly fish, which they typically batter-fried.
    Now Christianity was eventually outlawed in Japan in 1587.

Japanese Restaurant

    But the method, whose name morphed from tempora to tempura, stuck. And over time, the Japanese refined it into a high art, something that I intend to do right now. So we'll just take a couple of pieces back to the lab for analysis.

AB: [to no one in particular, as he leaves] Domo arigato.

The Kitchen

    Further examination of the sample reveals a thoroughly cooked base food encapsulated in a crystalline crust which exhibits proper adhesion and a snappy, well, snap. What's more, there is no outward sign of greasiness whatsoever. It's no wonder that tempura scares the toques off so many cooks, as amazing forces are clearly at work. But monstrous? I think not.

    The way I see it, if we're going to be victorious over tempura, the food must be prepped perfectly, the oil must be carefully chosen, and heated to an exact temperature. And the batter, well, that's going to be the tricky part. It must be light and crisp. Flavorful, but not greasy. That'll be a challenge. But first, we prep the food.




    [at the refrigerator] Traditionally, tempura is a method for cooking vegetation and mild white seafood. My favorites: slender green beansfresh as possible, of courseflat-leaf parsley, the wider the leaves, the better, shrimpmedium, head on, fresh, never frozen. And, we'll say, half a pound of tilapia fillet. A very, very mild fish, good for tacos and tempura. That's about it. But wait, there's more.

Root Cellar

    Root and storage vegetables have always occupied a place of honor at the tempura table. Renkon, or lotus root, kabocha squash, bamboo shoots, all highly prized. But as I said, my favorite is the sweet potato, originally grown in the region around Kagoshima, where, of course, the Jesuits first landed.
    Now the Japanese developed their own version of this import, but they're a little tough to find. So you can use anything that you would get at the mega mart. The jewel variety, the beauregard variety, are fine. But I prefer the garnets, because they are the perfect size and shape for this application. [ascends the stairs]

The Kitchen

GUEST: Thing

    All right, listen up. Tempura cooks fast, so tempura cooks hot. And so our target foods require a high surface-to-mass ratio.

    No problem with the beans, which require only a cursory trimming. Or for the parsley: we'll just take some of the stem off. There, that's perfect. As for the shrimp, we need to remove the shells and the legs. So I just use scissors and snip them right down the back. But we want to leave the tails and the heads on. That's important for tempura. ¼ Pound Green Beans,
8 Stems Hearty Flat-Leaf
½ Pound Shrimp, Peeled &

    Now as far as the tilapia, I just split each one of the fillets, and then cut into one-inch slices.

½  Pound Tilapia, Cut Into
    1-Inch Pieces

    As for the sweet potato, it is hard, and that means we'll need even more surface area to cook it quickly. So thin slices are in order, say an eighth of an inch max. And although I certainly could do that with a knife, you know, if I wanted, it would be hard, and it would take a long time. So we break out the mandoline. [Thing tosses AB a mandolin (lute)]

AB: Thing, do you never grow weary of that gag. Because I, for one, think it was funny about 1.2 times.

    I speak, of course, of this. Now this is a nice little, handheld, ceramic-bladed mandoline. You can use any slicer with a fixed blade like this. But if it comes with a hand guard, always make sure you utilize it. And this [sweet potato], this needs to be peeled. [throws the sweet potato up into the air, and it comes down, peeled] Thank you very much. Here we go. So once you have all of your mise en place done, go ahead and wrap and refrigerate, so that you can contemplate the batter.


5-6 Ounces Sweet Potato,
    Peeled & Thinly Sliced

Shojinage is tempura that consists exclusively of vegetables.

The Kitchen

    Boy howdy, I wish I had a nickel for every card, letter, fax, text, or e-mail I've received asking why I don't utilize one of the shiny, new countertop deep-fryers that has come on the market in recent years. Well, I'll tell you. Even if this device could reach the temperature it claims, which I have yet to witness, and even if it wasn't a tremendous pain to use, which it is, and even if it was as quick and easy to clean as it says, which it isn't, it would still be, at best, a unitasker, and you know what I think of ... Wait. You know, that's unfair. I can think of one other thing this would be good for. [camera pans to three fryers, each used as a flower pot] Now, let's consider some more traditional vessels, shall we?

    Once upon a time, tempura was fried up in heavy, iron, wok-like vessels called "agemono-nabe." Now the metal is extremely thick, so this takes a long time to heat up. And the narrow bowl shape makes it all but impossible to cook more than one piece of tempura at a time. If you ask me, this is a tool for very, very picky professionals, and that certainly rules me out.


    Now we could use this nice modern tempura pot. It's made out of thin iron, so it responds to temperature changes quickly. It's coated, so it's non-reactive. No rusting. It's nice. A really, really fine multitasker. But it's expensive and kind of hard to find, unlike the vessel that we so often turn to when we deep-fry. I speak, of course, of the cast-iron Dutch oven. It is cheap, readily available, and just heavy enough to make heat control more manageable.
    Speaking of heat management, I always fry with a fry thermometer. And I prefer an analog model over digital, because that little rising red column of liquid gives me a better indication of how quickly thermal changes are taking place in this pot, and that's important.

    When facing the dread tempura monster, one might be tempted to get all fancy with the fry oil. After all, modern cooks have access to dozens of different oils, including those harvested from nuts, seeds, fruits, various vegetation. Some are cold-pressed. Others are unrefined. All have specific flavor profiles and optimal temperature ranges. Although sesame oil, for instance, has often been implicated in classic tempura scenarios, plain, good old vegetable oil is my tempura fuel of choice: because it is completely devoid of flavor, it is cheap, biodegradable, and if I'm careful, I can filter it for use another day. One and a half quarts should do the job.

    [at the stovetop] The oil is in. The thermometer is attached, and the heat set to high. We're looking for 375 degrees. And keep in mind, oil heats faster than water, so don't wander away. This will happen quickly. 1½ Quarts Vegetable Oil

    Make sure the rest of your hardware is in place. You'll need two bowls. Ice will go in here. The batter will go in here. More on that later. You'll need some tongs to deliver the food from the batter over to the oil. When the food is ready, we will retrieve with a spider or some other straining device to the draining rig. My draining rig, paper towels on top of a cooling rack, on top of a sheet pan. I also have standing by the final resting place, some nice simple platters. And look, plain white paper. This is very traditional for tempura. But make sure you don't fold it straight on the angle. You want it to be just barely off-angle. But don't get it backwards, because I'm pretty sure that means "funeral" in Japanese. In this cuisine, everything means something.
    Behold, the Japanese characters for tempura, which translates roughly into "flour like gauze" or "batter-like revealing dress," depending on how you read it.
    Now when the Portuguese first unleashed tempura upon Nippon, the batter was simply water, wheat flour, and egg. Now I have tried every possible combination thereof, and cannot for the life of me come up with anything even remotely like the sample that we examined earlier. As you can see, clunky, greasy, nasty, like really bad fish and chips.
    The problem as I see it is, of course, gluten. As any good Good Eats fan knows, anytime we mix wheat flour and water together, two molecules, glutenin and gliadin, unwind and intertwine, forming a resilient, yet elastic matrix. Gluten is springy. Gluten is tough. And what's worse, gluten holds on to both water and fat. This translates to gummy, greasy tempura. Not exactly "gauzelike revealing dress" or whatever it was.

    So here's the goal. We're going to minimize the gluten. That means using ingredients that minimize water and glutenin and gliadin, and we're going to mix the batter as quickly as possible. And since gluten can form just sitting in the bowl, we're going to make the batter at the very last possible moment before frying.

Minimize Gluten

Mix Batter As
Quickly As Possible

Make Batter At
Last Possible Moment

    [at the pantry] First things first. Let's reconsider the flour. Now instead of ten ounces of all-purpose flour, let's try five ounces each of rice flour and unbleached cake flour. Now rice flour, easily obtained at most mega marts and certainly Asian markets, contains no gluten-forming molecules. And cake flour is finely milled, so it integrates quickly into batters. Why is unbleached important? Well, let's consider a starch granule, shall we?


    [at the countertop, working with Styrofoam models] The process of bleaching isn't just about making the flour white, though that certainly is a factor. It's really about making the starch granules themselves more fat-friendly, a positive characteristic in cake baking. Now bleaching chemically cracks open the starch's structure. There, it is now more fat-soluble. By using an unbleached cake flour, you can avoid this over-friendliness. Now if you can't find unbleached, go ahead with regular cake flour, but know that it will make a subtle difference, and tempura success is all about subtle differences.

Tempura is sometimes served with soup and pickles in Japan.

The Kitchen

    [at the refrigerator] Keeping the tempura batter cold will slow the absorption of liquid into the flour, and that's why we're going to set the batter bowl down into an ice bath.
    As for the batter itself, if we switch out the water that's called for in most recipes with either seltzer water or club soda, we'll introduce a lot of tiny bubbles into the batter, which will lighten it. CO2 also makes the water slightly acidic, and that is going to help to limit gluten formation. You know what else would limit gluten formation? We could replace some of the water with another liquid altogether, one that doesn't contain much water or oil. Hmm, what would that be?
    [at the cupboard] Alcohol is a liquid, but it's not water. It doesn't tend to soak into flour. It does not contribute to the construction of gluten. And since it evaporates at a relatively low 78 degrees Celsius, any batter containing it should, technically speaking, dry faster than one that is water-based. Half a cup of 80-proof vodkathat's 40% alcohol by volumecan stand in for half a cup of water. 100-proof vodka, even better.
    [at the countertop] So in the end, we replace everything but the egg. We do require the services of one large egg, because it will provide fat for flavor, color, and protein for binding. Just one will do.
    [at the stovetop] All right, our fry oil is at 365, quickly closing in on 375. Time to batter up.

    We have the one egg, beaten, both flours, and the vodka, and the water. So go ahead and combine all of the wet team together, and all the dry team together, then halve them. 1 Large Egg, Beaten
5 Ounces White Rice Flour
5 Ounces Unbleached Cake
1½ Cups Seltzer Water
½ Cup Vodka

    That's right. You see, in tempura, the fresher the batter, the better. Because as the few wheat glutens that are there sit in the water, they are going to toughen. So I'm going to actually use up one small batch, and then make another batch halfway through. Believe me, at some tempura joints, they make a separate batch of batter for every single order. I have seen it.
    So we take our first batch of batter over to the bowl. And keep in mind, ice is here, because cold batter hydrates more slowly than a warm batter. So the dry team goes in, and the wet team goes on top, and then we mix.
    Oh, notice, I am using a whisk rather than the traditional tempura mixing chopsticks, or hanabashi, which look a lot like drumsticks, if you ask me. Mixing, about ten strokes, and then just walk away. Walk away. Yeah, I know, lumps. But they will work themselves out. Don't worry. All right, let's fry.
    Always start with the hardest vegetable I have. In this case, that would be the sweet potato, and six pieces will do. More than that, and we'll crowd the pan. Make sure you've got thorough coating, but also drain thoroughly. We don't want any big glops of batter. There we go. And make sure you put them in one at a time so they don't touch.
    Heat management here is key, so check your thermometer often. And just ride the heat control to maintain the temperature between 375 and 400, tops.
    Now in two to three minutes, you'll see the color change on the batter to light brown, and the sizzling will start to diminish a little. That's when you know it's time to evacuate to the draining rig.
    Now next, we'll go with the second-hardest vegetable, being the beans. Again, about six pieces at a time, thorough coating and thorough draining. Don't skip that part. There you go. And again, try to keep them separated as they go in so they won't stick. Cook time, again, one to two minutes. Manage that heat properly, 375. When you've got light brown, out that goes. And just put that next to the sweet potatoes over on the rack. There, that looks good.
    Last, but not least, we'll go with the parsley. It has the shortest cooking time. Don't let go of it. Just kind of swirl it around in the batter. It's going to look very kind of club-like, but don't worry. If you put them in one piece at a time, kind of laying them out, they will spread open or bloom. I generally let these cook only 30 to 45 seconds, because I still want to have that bright green flavor. There, that's perfect. And evacuate.
    Hard-core tempurists will tell you that you should cook each item and then serve it individually. Me, I kind of like to have, you know, a little medley on the plate. So I go with all three of the vegetables in small batches, and then come back and do the seafood.
    Ah, as the lucky diners receive the golden goodness you hath wrought, they should quickly dip each piece into the soy-ginger sauce. [tries, but there is no soy-ginger sauce] Oh, bother.

According to legend, the shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu liked
tempura so much he ate it to death in 1616.

The Kitchen

    Our soy-ginger tempura sauce begins with ginger, oddly enough. We'll need two tablespoons, freshly grated. And I like to use a ginger grater lined with plastic. It makes cleanup a heck of a lot easier. That looks like two tablespoons. 2 Tbs. Fresh Ginger, Finely
    Next, we need two tablespoons, also of green onion. I like to use just the first four inches or so, chopped. Two cloves of garlic minced. 2 Tbs. Chopped Green Onion
2 Cloves Garlic, Minced

    All that goes into a jar or other sealable container, along with two teaspoons of sugar, one teaspoon of sesame oil, one quarter cup of rice wine vinegar, and finally, one half cup of soy sauce. I like the low-sodium kind. Just seal that up and give it a shake to combine. It'll keep for about a week. Or, of course, you can eat it right away.

2 tsp. Sugar
1 tsp. Sesame Oil
¼ Cup Rice Wine Vinegar
½ Cup Low-Sodium Soy

    [AB is eating] Mmm mmm. Now with the vegetation consumed, you should slip off and cook the seafood, while your guests stay behind and talk about what a genius you are behind your back.
    So, time to mix up our second half of the batter, again, over ice to keep it nice and cold. No more than about ten whisks with the whisk. And then the fish comes in. We're going to start with the tilapia. Five pieces, tops. Again, after that we'd be crowding the pan, which we don't want to do. The colder the fish is, by the way, the better the batter will stick. So you might want to keep it refrigerated if a lot of time is going to pass.
    Into the oil. Again, 375 minimum, or things will get greasy. Watch that heat management. After about two minutes, you should have something that looks like this. Excellent.
    Now the shrimp's a little more fragile, so take your time with it. Again, make sure you've got the tail fin still in place, because that's how you're going to hold it. See? Nice drain and then headfirst into the oil. Again, two minutes, tops, and you should have something that looks a lot like this.
    Typically, the shrimp has to drain just a little longer than the fish in order to not be greasy. There.

    Well, I hope we've inspired you to tackle tempura in your own kitchen. Just remember the three keys. Proportionally prepped ingredients, vegetable oil heated and held at 375 degrees, and a gluten-light batter, made ice-cold, at the last minute.

Proportionally Prepped Ingredients

Vegetable Oil Heated
to 375 Degrees

Gluten Light Batter
Made Ice Cold
at Last Minute

TM: [appears outside the window, this time, very calm]

    Oh, there, see? A once-dreaded, ten-story-tall engine of doom is reduced to a perfectly docile culinary critter.

AB: Now go get the mail, wash the car, and maybe we'll play fetch. Good boy.
TM: [leaves]

    Ha ha ha ha. See you next time on Good Eats.

Transcribed by Michael Roberts
Proofread by Michael Menninger

Hit Counter

Last Edited on 05/01/2011