Perfectly battered and expertly fried food magic is what it is.
Tempura is a phenomenal dish. You probably already have an idea of what it is. Tempura, as a food item, is legendary. The highest-scale Japanese restaurants in the United States pride themselves on their crisp tempura.
At the basic level, it is merely a fried food with a special batter and technique.
Here in Japan, you can find super expensive, ultra-high quality tempura and low-cost places where you can duck in for some tempura whenever you feel like it.
If you’re looking for an amazing tempura restaurant in Tokyo, we put together some recommendations (with the help of our local Japanese friends) for the best tempura in Tokyo.
Here’s a fantastic video showing off quality tempura in a 12-course meal!
Let’s dive into the ingredients that go into tempura, and then the batter used to make the golden crisp.
Common Tempura Ingredients
The exciting thing about tempura is you can dip nearly anything in the batter and fry it. So the list of ingredients could be massive.
I’m only going to show off a few of the most popular ingredients found in Japan. If you’d like to see more, check out this article here.
Ebi (えび) — this is shrimp (prawns). The shrimp usually have the head removed and sliced to prevent them from curling up when fried.
Shrimp is probably the most famous tempura ingredient.
Note: raw shrimp is used. You could use cooked shrimp, but you will need to be careful not to overcook it when frying — otherwise, you end up with a rubbery ebi tempura.
Why is tempura shrimp so long? Why doesn’t it curl?
Before cooking the shrimp are cut in a zig-zag pattern top and bottom, then stretch a little, so they lay flat, but are thinner and longer as a result.
Anago (穴子) — is a type of saltwater eel.
Hotate (ほたて) — scallops, typically fried whole.
Ika (いか) — is squid. The body of the squid is usually cut into rings before frying. The tentacles are cut into groups.
Kani (かに) — is crab. For tempura, crab legs are usually broken, and a portion of the leg is pulled out of the shell.
The meaty portion is then battered and fried — and the part with the shell is used to hold the tempura when eating.
Kisu (キス) — is a small whitefish. Look for a tiny fin sticking out of triangular tempura. This shape is how the Japanese filet the fish before frying.
Gobo (ごぼう) — is a root vegetable, sometimes referred to as burdock. It is sliced into long strips before frying.
Kabocha (カボチャ) — is pumpkin. It is cut into thin slices before frying so it can cook thoroughly. If you make this at home, don’t cut the slices too thick.
Renkon (レンコン) — is lotus root. In tempura, it’s sliced and looks similar to car wheels in shape.
Nasu (なす) — is eggplant. In Japan, it is cut in an interesting way. First, cut in half, then one end is sliced several times.
It’s hard to explain, here’s a video showing the cut.
Ninjin (人参) — is carrots. These are usually cut into thin slices or used in kakiage (see below).
Satsumaimo (さつまいも) — is sweet potato. For tempura, it’s cut into slices before battering and frying.
Shiitake (しいたけ) — is the famous shiitake mushroom.
Shishito (シシトウ) —is Asian peppers. They’re mild compared to something like a jalapeño, but one may kick you a little every once in a while.
Shiso (しそ) — is a leaf similar to mint. It’s hard to describe the flavor of shiso to those who have never tried it. Here’s a great attempt.
Tamanegi (たまねぎ) — is onion. Onion tempura is like onion rings, except they aren’t ordinarily shaped like rings in Japan. Instead, they’ll slice the onion, then cut the slice in half.
And then there is kakiage (かきあげ). This is a mixture of sliced vegetables like carrots, onions, mushrooms, and seafood like shrimp, etc.
It’s all mixed, dipped in the batter, and fried as a patty — sometimes served over rice (or even noodles).
The batter (koromo)
Tempura batter is impressive because it is a super light batter and does not use bread flakes (aka panko).
The batter’s typical ingredients are wheat flour (though it is possible to use all-purpose flour), water, egg, baking soda, potato starch, oil, and spices to your liking. However, you may find some recipes using things like soda water or even vodka.
Because they help keep the batter exceptionally light and when fried will create a very crispy result. In the case of the vodka, the alcohol evaporates, leaving the fried result crispy.
The other striking thing about it is how it is mixed. The batter mustn’t be overmixed and kept very cold to prevent the activation of the wheat gluten in the flour.
The result is a very thin, cold, liquid batter that doesn’t seem very batter-like. But is what allows for the ability to use it to fry nearly any ingredient — and creates that amazing, crispy, golden crust.
Here is a fantastic video by The Guardian of a Japanese chef making tempura. He shows how to make the batter first.
Tempura, at least in Japan, is traditionally cooked in sesame oil. Though more commonly these days, vegetable or canola oil are used — probably because they are cheaper.
One way to tell if the tempura was fried in sesame oil is the color. Tempura fried in vegetable oil is lighter than in sesame oil — where it gains a more golden color.
The remarkable frying technical of tempura masters is something you owe it to yourself to see. In some top-end restaurants, you can see the chef prepare the tempura.
Tempura is often eaten as-is, especially ebi tempura (not to be confused with ebi fry), but there are some dishes tempura is a part of too.
Tempura Soba — you’ll often find tempura as part of meal set alongside soba noodles, or on top of a bowl of hot soba noodles.
And to learn more about soba, check out our soba noodles in Japan guide.
Tempura Udon — just like soba noodles, you can find dishes where tempura is placed on top of a bowl of udon noodles in Japan.
Tendon — aka tempura donburi, is tempura over a rice bowl, usually with a sauce to bring it all together with the rice.
Tempura Sushi — not popular in Japan, but other countries such as the United States, where the tempura is rolled inside a blanket of rice and often sprinkled with sesame seeds and other toppings.
Do you really know what sushi is? Find out more in our deep dive into real sushi in Japan.
Why keep tempura batter cold?
Keeping tempura batter cold is part of preventing the wheat gluten from activating and thus causing the batter to become thick and dough-like.
The second thing to keep in mind is not to overmix the batter as this will also activate the wheat gluten.
What shrimp is used in tempura?
Any shrimp can be used. Tiger shrimp is common.
They’re cut in a zig-zag pattern across the top and bottom and then pulled to stretch them out.
Otherwise, there isn’t necessarily anything special about the shrimp. Of course, the higher quality shrimp will give you better tempura.
What is tempura made of?
Tempura batter is a combination of wheat flour, egg, baking soda, starch, oil, and other spices — mixed with ice-cold water.
The other ingredients are things you want to fry. In Japan, the common ingredients are shrimp, squid, scallops, crab, and vegetables like carrots, onion, shiitake mushrooms, and satsumaimo.
What is a tempura roll?
A tempura roll is simply tempura (usually tempura shrimp), rolled in rice, and then sliced before serving.
You may see this called a California Roll, or Dragon Roll as well.
Here’s a helpful video showing off how to make tempura rolls.
What kind of oil for tempura?
Plain old vegetable oil. You can mix some canola oil if you’d like.
Just keep the oil at about 350F when frying tempura.
What are tempura flakes?
Tempura doesn’t use something like bread flakes or panko. The flakes you see at some restaurants are bits of batter dropped into the oil — or even leftover when frying the tempura.
These are called agedama and are often used as toppings for things such as udon or soba.
Why is my tempura not crispy?
When making tempura at home, if it always seems to end up not very crispy, there are a few things to check.
First, make sure you’re using quality flour. If you can squeeze the flour in your fist and it clumps together quickly, it’s too moist. Try freezing the flour overnight and then sift it into the bowl.
Second, you may be over mixing the batter. It should be very runny. Lumps are okay. If it is becoming dough-like, you’ve mixed it too much.
Last, the water used in the batter must be as ice-cold as you can get. Use ice cubes to make it cold — and yes, you can let the ice cubes fall into the batter when mixing.
Why vodka in tempura batter?
This isn’t typical in Japan.
However, it has been discovered that using vodka can give crisp results because when the tempura is fried, the alcohol evaporates quickly, leaving pockets in the frying batter that increase surface area with the oil.
It also does not interact with wheat flour the same as water does — activating less gluten, which prevents the batter from becoming dough-ey.
Can tempura be baked?
No, not technically. You can find recipes all over the internet, trying to reproduce tempura using a baking technique.
But no… you won’t find baked tempura in Japan.
If you mean, can tempura that has already been fried be baked to reheat it?
Yes, it can. 🙂
Can tempura be healthy?
Hmm… this is hard to answer. If you use a high-quality, non-trans fats oil, then tempura isn’t exactly unhealthy.
I wouldn’t go so far as to say it can be a healthy food though.
What is tempura sauce?
Tempura sauce, which tempura is dipped in when eaten, is a combination of mirin, soy sauce, water, and katsuobushi (bonito flakes) — with grated daikon radish added before serving.