What is Tempura? A Beginner's Guide to this Delicious Japanese Dish

By Avah Atherton
Updated: February 21, 2023

Hey there, foodie friends! Are you ready to take a tasty trip through history with us? Today, we're diving into the delicious world of tempura. You know, that crispy, deep-fried Japanese dish that is a must-try for anyone in Japan. If you're a fan of the movie "Tampopo" then you know what we're talking about.

So, what exactly is tempura? In short, it's a traditional Japanese dish made by coating ingredients in a light and airy batter before deep-frying them. This can include seafood, meats, and veggies, and it's usually served with a sweet and savory dipping sauce made from dashi, soy sauce, and mirin. Sounds delicious, right? It is!

The history of tempura

Did you know that tempura has a rich history that dates back to the 16th century when Portuguese missionaries first arrived in Nagasaki, Japan? The very first Europeans to visit the island, their culture left an impact on Japan that can still be seen today. Common Japanese food products like castella, bolo, and konpeito are originally Portuguese.

These missionaries also introduced deep-frying techniques to Japan. The missionaries would frequently deep-fry vegetables during the Lenten period.  The term "tempura" actually comes from the Latin word "tempora" which refers to times of fasting. Talk about cultural exchange!

Brocolis Tempura from Portugal

The evolution of tempura 

During the Edo period (1603-1868), tempura became a staple of Japanese cuisine and chefs began experimenting with different ingredients and styles. But, it wasn't always accessible to everyone. In the past, tempura was considered a luxury food and was only served in high-end restaurants.

However, as cooking oil production increased, street vendors began selling tempura quickly and conveniently, making it more accessible to the masses. This helped solidify tempura's place as a staple of Japanese cuisine.

Fancy shrimp tempura

As tempura became more popular, several different regional variations began to develop. In the Kansai region, a style of tempura known as "tenkasu" or tempura flakes developed. They can be made by deep-frying small balls of tempura batter or by simply breaking up larger pieces of tempura.

In Oita prefecture, chicken tempura is considered to be the area's specialty dish. Did you know that tempura chef, Kondō Fumio, earned two Michelin stars for his restaurant Tempura Kondo? Tempura is not just food, it's also an art form.

What is the difference between tempura and fried food?

Now that you know what tempura is, let's talk about what it isn't. While tempura and typical fried foods both involve deep-frying, tempura typically uses a lighter and airier batter and is often made with seafood and veggies.

On the other hand, traditional fried food can use a thicker and heavier batter or flour mixture and can be made with various ingredients. I’m looking at you, America. Tempura can also be found in luxurious, high-class restaurants whereas no one would risk the wrath of Gordon Ramsay by serving common fried foods in his Michelin-starred restaurant.

Types of tempura

Various tempura next to a bowl of udon

Some of the most popular tempura ingredients include shrimp, fish, squid, and various types of vegetables such as eggplant, sweet potatoes, and pumpkin. Chicken tempura is also a popular variation. Here are the popular kinds of tempura available in Japan:

  1. Ebi tempura
  2. Kakiage tempura
  3. Egg tempura
  4. Vegetable tempura
  5. Shiso tempura
  6. Sakana tempura (fish tempura)
  7. Kakiage donburi
  8. Toriten (chicken tempura)

1. Ebi tempura (shrimp tempura)

Shrimp tempura, with both the heads and bodies of two shrimp, rest on a plate

This is one of the most popular types of tempura in Japan. It is made by coating whole shrimp in tempura batter and can be found atop udon or soba noodles. Ebi tempura is often confused with ebi furai, which is shrimp coated in a heavy panko batter and deep fried. Don’t make the same mistake! At high-end tempura restaurants, sometimes the head of the shrimp is also served, indicating the high quality of the shrimp.

2. Kakiage tempura

kakiage tempura in a basket serving dish

This is a type of tempura made by mixing Julienne-cut vegetables and seafood. The most common vegetables used for kakiage tempura are carrots, burdock, and onions. They are mixed with small shrimp, shaped into a disc, and then deep-fried. We recommend having this with salt.

3. Egg tempura

Split egg tempura with yolk running out

This "tsukimi" tempura is made with soft-boiled eggs. Just imagine the crispy exterior and then the soft-creamy interior of tsukimi tempura. Makes you want to find the nearest tempura restaurant, doesn’t it? 

4. Vegetable tempura

A mix of vegetable tempura

This is another popular type of tempura made with whole pieces or slices of vegetables. It also happens to be my favorite type! Lotus root, okra, pumpkin, mushroom, sweet potato, and eggplant are the most frequently used vegetables. 

5. Shiso tempura

Shiso tempura held up by chosticks

Shiso, or perilla leaf, is another popular type of tempura. The sharp taste of the leaf with the crunchy deep-fried exterior creates a very unique taste. Try it!

6. Sakana tempura (fish tempura)

A pile of small tempura fish on a blue plate

Any type of white fish can be used for tempura. The light texture makes it perfect for tempura as the quick cooking method preserves its natural flavors. Ayu, a type of river fish, is also used. 

7. Kakiage donburi

Sauce pouring over a kakiage donburi

Kakiage donburi, made with thinly-sliced vegetables in a disc-shape, is served on a bed of rice in a bowl. This way of serving kakiage is best enjoyed with tempura sauce, also called tentsuyu, instead of salt because the rice allows the sauce to be evenly distributed.

8. Toriten (chicken tempura)

Toriten fried chicken

Originating from Oita Prefecture, toriten is served in many different ways. Different from the well-known fried chicken, chunks of chicken are seasoned before being deep-fried and then served with a citrusy ponzu sauce. Brb, I’m on my way to Oita. 

How to enjoy tempura

Here are a few different ways to eat tempura. Dip it in tentsuyu, Kanto-style. Tentsuyu is a perfect complement to the light and crispy texture of tempura. Have it with salt, like they do in Kansai. Usually, a salt flavored with matcha or nori is used to maximize the taste of the tempura. A quick option is tenmusubi, rice balls with shrimp tempura as a filling. You can find tenmusubi in convenience stores and groceries.

A bowl of tendon

Try tendon, a bowl of rice topped with different types of tempura. This is a guaranteed way to get a complete meal. If you’re in Osaka, be sure to try tempura ochazuke, which is a tendon with green tea poured over it. Most tendon restaurants are very affordable so you have no excuses. No to rice? Then how about soba buckwheat noodles or udon flour noodles instead?

tempura and soba on a two part tray

Tenzaru, a dish made with cold soba noodles served alongside assorted tempura, is a great meal to have in the summertime when you desperately need a break from the humidity. Many tempura restaurants serve it with grated daikon radish and green onions, which adds a refreshing touch.

You can also enjoy tempura served in a hot broth with either soba or udon. If you want to sit and slowly savor tempura, we’ve curated a list of tempura restaurants in Tokyo so that you don’t have to. And if you're not in Tokyo, there are still plenty of other tempura restaurants in Japan to try.

Want a high-class experience? Eat like royalty with this tempura omakase (chef’s recommendation) course by one of Japan’s top tempura chefs, Koichiro Shimura.

Tempura Ono

Tempura has a rich history and cultural significance that spans centuries. From its origins as a luxury food enjoyed by the elite to its current status as a staple of Japanese cuisine, tempura has evolved to become a beloved and versatile dish enjoyed by people of all ages.

With its unique and crispy texture, tempura is a true culinary masterpiece that is a must-try for anyone looking to experience the best of Japanese culture through food. So, grab your chopsticks and get ready to dive into the crispy, delicious world of tempura! 

We strive to be as accurate as possible and keep up with the changing landscape of Japan's food and travel industries. If you spot any inaccuracies, please send a report.
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Avah Atherton
Avah, a proud Trinidadian, has a meat mouth, a sweet tooth, and a mission to find good food and great experiences. Based in Tokyo, she enjoys long walks (especially if they lead to somewhere delicious), reading, live performances, and art exhibitions.
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