A Meal, One Small Piece at a Time – Dining at a Tempura Restaurant in Tokyo

Tempura cook at work at Ten-Ichi Tempura Restaurant in Tokyo, Japan
Tempura cook at work at Ten-Ichi Tempura Restaurant in Tokyo, Japan

In a world of “faster, cheaper, newer,” he stands for tradition. He still believes in the old ways, believes in concentrating on a single task and doing it right. He is the chef in a tempura restaurant. His focus is on small tasks: preparing the batter, dipping the vegetable or seafood morsel into the batter with just the right motion and duration, and then deep-frying the item until it is perfectly cooked. The diner is in his hands, and eats when the chef places the next selection on the serving plate.

The photo above captures some of the chef’s constant motion as he attended to the details of the batter (making new batches every 20 minutes or so), the heat under the oil, ingredient preparation, dipping, and cooking.In February, I went to the Ten-Ichi restaurant in the Ginza district of Tokyo. Ten-Ichi has been around for over 70 years and now has over 30 restaurants and 40 take-out shops, primarily in the Tokyo area (consult the December 2004 Saveur for more history about the Ten-Ichi company and its members). Its name is a combination of the character for tempura (“ten”), and number one (“ichi”).

Before I continue with the meal, a bit of tempura background from Donald Richie’s marvelous A Taste of Japan (the book is out of print, but copies are still available on the internet). Although the Japanese have been deep-frying since around the eighth century, tempura has only been part of Japanese cuisine for a few hundred years — most think that the Portuguese brought it to Japan in the late 16th century.

The origin of the word tempura is unclear. Some think it to be the Japanification of the word templo, Portuguese for “temple,” because the Portuguese Catholics often ate deep-fried fish on Fridays, and thus the Japanese associated battered foods with religion. Richie writes that this is “[a] most suspicious etymology,” and believes that a more plausible explanation is the word tempora, “lent.” The Lonely Planet World Food Japan book (out of print) offers several additional theories related to poetry, nicknames and wordplay that go back to before the year 1000.

The working area at Ten-Ichi Tempura Restaurant in Tokyo, Japan
The working area at Ten-Ichi Tempura Restaurant in Tokyo, Japan

Returning to the restaurant…After handing our coats to the staff at the front desk, we were led into a room with a C-shaped counter that surrounded the chef’s cooking station. The chef had an area with his raw ingredients (seafood and vegetables) nicely arranged on a bamboo mat, a bowl with the batter, a small cutting board (rarely used since most items were prepared behind the scenes), and the big wok full of hot oil (a blend of corn and sesame oil, with the proportions a carefully guarded secret).

Our places were already set with a small salad, cooked-green vegetables topped with bonito (fish) flakes, a small dish with salt and a lemon wedge, and a small bowl containing a mound of grated daikon (white radish). We poured sauce into this last bowl to create one of the flavorings for the tempura. To drink, our party of six had beer, Japanese whiskey, shochu, and a wonderful junmai dai ginjo sake (for explanation of the terms “junmai” and “dai ginjo”, visit True Sake’s learning pages).

Side dishes and sauces at Ten-Ichi Tempura Restaurant in Tokyo, Japan
Side dishes and sauces at Ten-Ichi Tempura Restaurant in Tokyo, Japan

After we settled in with a drink, the chef started to work. My hosts had arranged for an all vegetable meal for me, and it included such standard items as shiitake mushroom, asparagus, small onions, tiny Japanese peppers, and Japanese sweet potato. The new items for me were ginkgo nuts (ginnan) on a skewer with a small piece of green bean, very tiny eggplant (sliced and fanned out slightly before cooking), lotus root, and taranome (the bud of the angelica tree). They also offered fukinoto, a flower bud that symbolizes the beginning of spring. However, I had tried it the night before without knowing its symbolic importance, and found it to be painfully bitter. Doubting that knowing about its symbolic importance would change my palate’s response, I passed on the fukinoto. In the end, my favorite items were the ginkgo nuts, the little eggplant, and the taranome.

Each piece was perfectly cooked and because the pieces came to me right out of the oil, one at a time, I was able to eat each piece at its peak. The batter formed crispy, gauzy coating around the vegetables with a light golden color, and the vegetables were hot throughout and tender. It was far superior to the usual basket of several lukewarm items. Following the tempura course, we were served a miso soup, a plate of pickles, and a bowl of glistening white rice. For dessert, the choices were fresh mango or fresh papaya, a fittingly simple offereing. Finally, we had two small cups of green tea (o-cha) to end the meal.

One small piece at a time, each one cooked to perfection, a great way to dine in Tokyo.

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