Light & Crispy Shrimp Tempura with a Tentsuyu Dipping Sauce
I had been hearing (from a certain someone) for years about a tempura restaurant in Tokyo to which no other could purportedly hold a candle. But the restaurant had since moved location, had a Japanese-only website, and was incredibly difficult to book. A fair bit of Google-translating and concierge cajoling later though, I finally had a booking, and was, at long last, going to be able to try it, and judge for myself.
The first restaurant I ate at in Japan, on the southern island of Kyushu, also happened to be a tempura restaurant. We didn’t have a booking, but stumbled across it empty, walked in, and sat down. The tempura was great – light, super-crisp and served directly from the hot oil, across a small bar. Salt, lemon, grated daikon, and tentsuyu – that flavoursome dark dipping sauce – accompanied by a few mimed instructions from the chef regarding what to add to what. It was the best tempura ever, and I told this to the disbelieving Tokyo-tempura proclaimer.
Two weeks later, finally sitting across the bar at Ten-Ichi Tempura in Tokyo I was stuck by how remarkably similar it looked to the first tempura restaurant. At the time, I put this, along with the fact that the menu, and even the dishes themselves were exactly the same as the first place, down to the supposedly incredible ‘uniformity’ of Japanese culture. The meal was good, but not better than the first, I informed the incredulous proclaimer…
It was not until I got home and looked at the photos I had taken that I realised the restaurants were of course one and the same. The Ten-ichi fame had spread far and wide apparently, so much so that far off Kyushu had even managed a branch. The confusions that arise when not only can you not be sure what you are eating, but you also can’t even hope to recognise the characters that make up the restaurant name!
- 12 very large prawns
- 3 tablespoons cornflour
- 1 litre of sunflower oil for deep frying
- 100ml sesame oil (to add flavour to the deep-frying oil) - optional
- 100g rice flour
- 80ml sparkling or soda water – refrigerated for at least 5 hours prior to use
- 1 large egg yolk – gently whisked and refrigerated
- ½ teaspoon baking powder
- ½ teaspoon finely milled salt
- Four small ice cubes
- 1½ cups water
- 16 square inches, (2x8” strip) dried kombu (kelp)
- 1/3 cup bonito flakes (Katsuobushi) (approx. 2 heaped tablespoons)
- Just under ½ cup soy sauce
- 1/3 cup mirin
- ¼ cup peeled and finely grated daikon to serve
- 1 tablespoon finely grated ginger to serve (optional)
- Sea salt and lemon wedges to serve (optional)
Measure out the 100g of rice flour and store in the freezer prior to using.
To prepare the tentsuyu sauce, soak the konbu in a medium saucepan containing the 1½ cups of water for 15 minutes. Now, place over a medium heat and warm the water and konbu until just pre-boiling, i.e. remove from the heat once small bubbles begin to form at the edge of the saucepan. Next, add the bonito flakes and stir through, allowing to steep for 5 minutes, but no longer (it can turn bitter if left longer than this).
Strain the mixture through a fine sieve, discarding the konbu and bonito flakes. You now have a dashi (Japanese stock), the basis for a number of famous Japanese dishes, including miso soup!
Return the dashi to the medium saucepan and add the soy sauce, and mirin, before placing back over medium heat. Bring to a boil, and once again, remove immediately. Put aside to cool to room temperature, before refrigerating until needed.
Prepare the prawns by carefully removing their heads, and shells, but leaving their two tail fins attached. De-vein by making a shallow slit along the spine of each prawn. In order to stop the prawn curling when deep-fried, make a series of shallow incisions along the underside of each prawn, such that it becomes straightened. Lastly, rinse the prawns and thoroughly pat dry with paper towel. Place in the refrigerator until needed.
When you are ready to cook, make sure you have everything that you are going to need assembled and ready to go – including your diners! The secret to a crisp tempura batter is to keep it cold, cold, cold. And shrimp tempura is only tasty when it is very crisp and hot, so everything needs to happen pretty fast from here…
First, pour the sunflower oil and sesame oil (if using) into a large, high-sided saucepan. For deep-frying, the oil should only ever come to halfway up the sides of the saucepan as its level will rise considerably as it bubbles up during cooking.
Heat the oil to 170°C, or the temperature at which a chopstick placed in the oil will immediately begin to bubble rapidly. (It does help to have a frying thermometer to confirm the oil temperature as if it is too cool the tempura will become oil-logged and heavy, too hot and the oil becomes very dangerous).
While the oil is heating, take the prawns from the refrigerator and, using a fine sieve, dust the prawns on both sides with a fine coating of the cornflour.
Next, remove the rice flour from the freezer to a large metal bowl. To this, add the baking powder and salt. Now pour in the very cold sparkling water, whisked egg yolk, and ice cubes. Stir very briefly (using a pair of chopsticks if you are very concerned about authenticity!) to form a loose, lumpy batter. Take care here not to over-stir (30 seconds is more than enough), as too much mixing will result in a doughy finish.
Holding the first prawn by the tail, dredge through the batter, before placing carefully in the hot oil. Quickly repeat, adding another two prawns to the pan.
(Overcrowding will result in a very quick temperature reduction, so don’t feel tempted to fry more than three at a time! If you are keen to get your tempura to the table as quickly as possible, I’d recommend having two deep-frying pots running concurrently, to speed the whole process up. Lots to juggle, but super-fresh and crisp tempura is the reward.)
Immediately after you’ve added the prawns, pick up a small amount of batter using one hand and flick this into the hot oil. Using your other hand, and a heat-proofutensil such as a frying sieve, or spatula, direct the frying prawns towards the floating batter bits, sweeping them through so that they stick. This will give the prawns that spiky restaurant appearance.
Fry for 2 minutes before removing the prawns to a metal rack to drain off any excess oil.
Repeat with the remaining prawns, and then head straight to the table with them – remembering to turn off the heat below the oil.
Mix the grated daikon through the tentsuyu sauce at the table. Grated ginger can also be added to the tentsuyu if you like. Or skip the sauce altogether in favour of a squeeze of lemon and sprinkling of flaky sea salt. The hotter and fresher the tempura, the more delicious they are with just lemon and salt. Less hot, and the tentsuyu deliciously covers a multitude of sins!