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Tempura In Tokyo

Tokyo is a food-lover's paradise, with more Michelin starred restaurants than any other city in the world. Even if you do not dine at these rarefied heights, it is possible to eat very well without bankrupting yourself. From sushi restaurants to tempura, ramen, yakitori and little bento boxes sold at street corners, there is something to suit every budget and every taste.

Whether you eat in an upscale restaurant or a tiny sushi bar, you will find every dish made with the freshest ingredients, perfectly cooked and beautifully presented. This  meticulous attention to detail is what makes eating in Japan such an  amazing experience.

One of the most interesting places to eat a quick, inexpensive lunch is in the food hall basements of Tokyo's many high end department stores. These places are huge and filled with a mind boggling array of stalls selling raw and prepared food.

It became obvious to us that people in Tokyo take  food very seriously when we wandered past a street corner with a huge chef looming majestically on one side and giant teacups adorning a building on the other side. We had reached the famous Kappabashi, a street that specializes in shops selling restaurant and kitchen supplies.

As we strolled down the street, we came across many stores selling anything and everything you could possibly want to equip your kitchen. There were kitchen supply stores, food stores, knife stores and even stores specializing in selling fake food replicas! How can anyone resist buying fake food?!

A short distance from Kappabashi we ate a truly memorable meal at an old, well known restaurant  called Sansado that specializes in tempura. There is always a long line of people waiting to get in, so by the time we were seated, we were quite hungry! Our meal consisted of many different kinds of tempura, some made with an assortment of vegetables and some with shrimp. Biting into the crisp, crunchy batter to the tender vegetables and shrimp inside was a sublime experience!

Tempura was introduced to Japan by seventeenth century Portuguese missionaries who traveled from their Indian colony in Goa. It is quite likely that they brought along with them Goan cooks who were used to cooking pakoras, the ever popular Indian snack. The name has Latin roots, where "tempora" refers to the period of Lent when Catholics gave up eating meat and had only fish or vegetables. Frying these in batter made Lent quite agreeable!

My tempura recipe returns to  its Indian origins by using chickpea flour in the batter, as is done in making pakoras. The chickpea flour imparts an earthy taste to the batter which is enhanced by the addition of cumin seeds. Egg yolk and baking powder ensure that the coating of batter remains crisp and does not absorb excess oil during deep frying.

Feel free to use an assortment of other vegetables such as sliced eggplant, okra, lotus root, sweet red pepper or whole hot green chillies, along with the cauliflower. Serve with mango or tamarind chutney.

Tempura

300gm cauliflower florets (about 3 cups ), cut into small bite sized pieces

1/2 cup each: all purpose flour, chickpea flour (besan)

Salt to taste

1/4 tsp each: baking powder, cumin seeds

1 egg yolk

3/4 cup cold water

2 cups oil for deep frying

Place cauliflower in large mixing bowl.

Combine all purpose flour, chickpea flour, salt, baking powder and cumin seeds in deep mixing bowl. Combine egg yolk and water in small bowl and and add to dry flour mixture. Mix gently until fairly smooth. Do not overmix.

Heat oil for deep frying in wok set over medium heat. Dip cauliflower pieces in batter and lower gently into hot oil. Do not over crowd the wok. Do this in batches. Fry cauliflower for about 5 min per side, turning once or until tender and golden. Drain on paper towels. Proceed similarly with remaining cauliflower.

Serves four