Tempura: The History Of Japan’s Favourite Fried Food
Image Credit: Shutterstock. Tempura shows the competence of the Japanese and their flair for incorporating foreign foods into their native cuisine.

If there’s one dish that’s synonymous with Japanese food besides sushi, it’s tempura. A crunchy outer layer covers vegetables or seafood, which are then dipped in a salty sauce and eaten. These batter-fried vegetables or seafood are usually eaten as appetisers or as mains with udon noodles. Although heavy on the stomach, they make a filling and satisfying meal. Tempura batter is made with flour, beaten egg and cold water. 

The Japanese have a unique knack for taking foreign food and changing it to suit the Japanese palate, creating new and original dishes. Tempura is a great example of this.

Tempura, a method of frying food, was introduced in the 1600s by Portuguese missionaries. The original dish no longer exists, but it was a meal meant to be eaten during Lent, when many Christians give up meat. The word ‘tempura’ comes from the Latin term ‘ad tempora cuaresme’, which means ‘in the time of Lent’. It is believed that the Japanese assumed this was the dish's name and called it tempura.

Tempura was introduced around the commercial port city of Nagasaki. At the time, Japan was disconnected from the rest of the world. Its only contact was through Portuguese, Dutch and Chinese traders and missionaries in this port city.

The frying method that tempura uses was new to Japan. Unlike the case with most other countries, Japan never had a tradition of frying food. Even though neighbouring China had always had fried dishes and a lot of its food culture reached Japan centuries earlier, somehow frying food never became the norm. 

Soon, tempura became a popular snack that was served between meals. Tokugawa Ieyasu, the first shogun of Japan, loved the dish. Legend has it that he died from eating too much tempura. 

Originally, tempura was made with balls of minced meat, vegetables and fish. Somewhere around the 18th century, Japanese chefs began to experiment with frying fish and vegetables whole. This marks the point at which the snack became quintessentially Japanese. Japan has a strong tradition of eating food that’s fresh and natural. And so, when chefs began frying vegetables and fish whole, preserving their unique taste and character, it became a truly Japanese food. This is also when tempura came to be considered a meal in itself rather than a mere snack. 

These days, tempura is often served on rice or on top of soba or udon noodles. Some modern sushi rolls are also fried tempura-style, but this is more common outside Japan. Portuguese cuisine no longer includes the original dish that became tempura, but there are similar dishes. It has been speculated that the original Portuguese dish may have come from Goa since India is home to the pakora.

Today, tempura is an important part of traditional Japanese cuisine. A dish of foreign origin was modified to suit Japanese tastes, resulting in something new. It shows the competence of the Japanese and their flair for incorporating foreign foods into their native cuisine.