Tempura can make something decadently delectable of any manner of humble veggie (even the cabbage leaf) or any meat (from fish to poultry). Tempura is one of the mainstays of Japanese cooking and, while you’ll be able to find it pretty much anywhere in the world, Tokyo is the home of this light, crispy batter.
That’s certainly where you should be headed if tempura treats, karaoke, designer excess and tall buildings are your thing – but is it really where it all started? The story of tempura, like any other great narrative, seems to have an interesting plot twist.
How Fried Green Beans Changed The World Forever
To look deep into tempura’s fascinating past, our first destination is Portugal. For reasons that are unfathomable, Portuguese cuisine is not nearly as celebrated as the likes of French or Italian cooking but chances are that, despite the names that may seem foreign to you, you’ll find many familiar dishes on Portuguese menus. The biggest surprise of all is that tempura has its origins here – prepare yourself because this will change the way you experience fried food entirely.
The Portuguese explorers were some of the most enthusiastic and fearless in the world, so it should come as no surprise that the first Western sailors to reach Japanese island Tanegashima in 1543 were Portuguese. They may have been swept off course but this happy occurrence started an enduring Japanese-Portuguese trade exchange station. When the Portuguese were eventually banished from the island, they left behind a recipe for green beans in batter. They say the Japanese improved on just about everything and, consequently, the meat, fish or vegetarian incarnations of this speciality entered the canon of Far Eastern fare.
Portuguese chefs may still be slow to acknowledge that it was their Far Eastern counterparts who revolutionised the very concept of battering, but they’ll freely concede the Japanese brought to it the lightness that’s now its defining characteristic. And it’s certainly true that, today, your favourite tempura indulgence can be found on Japanese menus from Seattle to the Sydney.
Far Cry From A Poor Man’s Meal
So why batter green beans? Turns out ‘tempura’ comes from tempora in Latin, which refers to a time of fasting. Portugal, still a predominantly Catholic country, infused ‘tempora’ with a meaning specifically linked to the fasting period of Lent, which in those times was strictly meat-free. To feel like they were still getting a treat, the locals would either batter fish or green beans (‘fish’ from the garden) for dinner.
It was also a great way of preserving a nutrient-filled pulse on the long journeys in a time where a journey from Portugal to the Far East would take several months. Little did the Portuguese know, their little lent-time treats would inadvertently change the cooking inclinations of a nation forever.