Deep fat frying was really a hush-hush word in the 1990s among gourmets deeply affected by the aerobics and quasi-health brigade. Oil, in those quantities, was simply unacceptable. Deep fat frying represented all that they didn’t want to be—fat and pimply. It didn’t seem to change the eating habits of the Chinese or the Japanese who, despite all the fuss, carried on eating their delicious deep-fried morsels guiltlessly.
Deep frying, to my mind, came from the guilt-ridden West, where an excess of French fries and junk food led to all the brouhaha. Small amounts of anything are never bad for you, especially if cooked properly. The Japanese seem to have perfected this with tempura. It is also one of the few dishes available in Japanese restaurants which first-timers seem to relish and which looks so familiar that a warm comfort immediately sets in amid the often stark décor and frightening appearance of raw fish nearby. Tempura is basically prawns and vegetables dipped in a light batter and quickly deep fried. Not a million miles away from our own bhaji or the French beignet, or the Spanish calamari fritto or Italian fritto misto di mare, or deep-fried seafood fritters. But the technique, if perfected, is bliss. The texture of the batter is crispy without a trace of oil and the inside, whether prawn or broccoli, is succulent and juicy. Saying that this is a truly Japanese dish is actually inaccurate. The technique and name, it seems, were brought to the Far East by Portuguese explorers in the 16th century. There is a charming Thai restaurant in Chennai called Benjarong where they serve the most divine tempura soft-shell crabs.
The first thing to get right is the batter. This is much more difficult than it looks. Most frying batters consist of flour and eggs. To make this one, I add a little cornflour for crispness since Japanese flour is different from ours. You can add a whole egg or a whisked egg white, and you must add ice-cold water (just a little), and the batter must be lumpy and floury in parts. Tempura batter is never smooth and silky.
The frying technique is also important. I am a great fan of deep fat fryers simply because if you are going to deep fry, then do it properly. A karahi is a disaster for absorbing oil. Deep frying definitely gives you crisper, better-looking food. On deep fryers, you have a temperature gauge. Once it reaches a certain temperature, the little red light goes out, which means the oil is ready and it will not smoke or burn your food. This temperature is maintained throughout the cooking. With a karahi, the oil will smoke after a while and you have to constantly watch the food to see if it is burning or undercooking, and adjust the heat accordingly. You have to do a splash test by throwing something in it which tells you if the oil is ready and your kitchen walls and ceiling grease up. Most deep fryers have a cover and an oil mark which indicates how much oil you have to put in, which saves spluttering. They are also pretty easy to clean, with neat wire baskets and pull-out compartments.
This is a sure-shot recipe for tempura. Serve with light soya sauce or Thai sweet chilli sauce.
Spicy Vegetables Tempura
A foolproof recipe for the light, crispy Japanese starter
(For the batter)
1 cup refined flour (maida), sifted
1/4 cup cornflour
½ tsp chilli powder
½ tsp salt
½ cup ice-cold water
1 egg white, whisked till stiff
Oil for deep frying
Choose 2 cups of vegetables from these options (all raw):
Sliced lotus root
Zucchini with skin, cut into diagonal slices
Fresh mushrooms, whole
Small broccoli florets
Baby corn, cut in half, on the slant
Snow peas, trimmed
To make the batter, place both flours, chilli powder and salt in a bowl. Add the water and fold in the whisked egg. Don’t beat the batter, just stir with chopsticks or a fork. A few lumps are fine. Heat the oil, dip vegetables in the batter and fry till light golden in colour. Drain lightly on kitchen paper. You may have to do this in batches.
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