Tempura is one of Japan’s most distinctive dishes and a favourite of foodies around the world. But does it really originate from Japan?
Yes, yes, we know. The concept is as blasphemous as saying tacos aren’t Mexican, hamburgers aren’t American and French tries aren’t French. Hang on…
Anyway, for the sake of our mental health, let’s concentrate on one life-shattering discovery at a time. For now, let’s focus our attention on tempura.
This tale of culinary intrigue starts in 16th century Portugal. The majority of the population followed Catholic tradition, and customs like fasting during the “Ember days” were commonplace. Ember days were instituted by Pope Gregory VII as days of prayer and abstinence; a chance to thank God for the wonders of nature and for teaching men the gift of moderation.
The term Ember days is a corruption from the Latin “quattuor anni tempora”, which means “four seasons”, and corresponds to the four days at the beginning of each season ordained for the practice. This term is important in our story, as it is later the origin of the name “tempura”.
“Peixinhos da horta”, which translates to “little fishes from the garden” in Portuguese, was a recipe devised as a hack to the fast. The dish is prepared with battered green beans that are then deep fried. The meal provided a cheap and tasty replacement for meat and could be preserved during long journeys. Win-win!
Legend says that in 1543, a Chinese ship with three Portuguese sailors (also believed to be Jesuit missionaries) was headed to Macau, but weather conditions forced them off course and ended up taking the vessel to the Japanese island of Tanegashima.
Antonio Peixoto, Francisco Zeimoto and Antonio da Mota, considered the first Europeans to ever step on Japanese soil, created a Portuguese trading post through which they would bring island weapons, tobacco and soap to the island nation.
As it always happens, commercial trade becomes a cultural exchange, and Japan was introduced to the succulent “Peixinhos da horta”. The Japanese took the recipe and adapted it to their environment, lightening the batter and opening the fillings to the varied array of seafood available on their shores.
Today, tempura has evolved to become a very popular Japanese dish, known all over the world as a staple of their cuisine. And they don’t stop at green beans. They use prawn, shrimp, squid, scallop, mushrooms, kabocha, bamboo shoots, eggplant and virtually everything under the sun.
The Portuguese post remained in Japan until 1639, when they were banished after the ruling shogun Iemitsu declared Christianity a danger to Japanese society.
The Portuguese did not return for a couple of decades, but they had already left an indelible influence on the island. Today, you can thank Portugal for those crunchy, heavenly bits of fried goodness seen as Japanese as ninjas, anime and Oliver Atom.