Why Is My Tempura Not Crispy?

Tempura moriawase by viv, featuring lotus root, shiitake, kisu (sillago fish), prawn, sweet potato, squid, kaki-age of mitsuba and shrimps (Photo: viv)

IF you’re even asking this question, you’ve probably been eating the wrong kind of tempura all your life. This is what I learned at the end of my first day at a double-day agemono class with Masakatsu Takemoto of Tsuji, that august cooking school in Osaka. No, I wasn’t in Osaka. I only wish! Takemoto Sensei had flown in to town as a guest teacher at the At-Sunrice GlobalChef Academy two weeks ago.

Real Tempura Is Not Crispy
As class wrapped up on our first day with some hungry, eager nibbles after awkward attempts at plating our tempura moriawase, the very first comment our tempura master and teacher shared, through his translator, was this: “I keep hearing many of you say, ‘How come our tempura is not crispy?’ Actually, it’s not supposed to be crispy.” Here, Chef Kelly, his At-Sunrice host piped in: “Real tempura is not crispy. You know the crispy kind you always eat? Why is that crispy? It’s because they put baking soda!”

Secret Ingredient
No, we don’t want baking soda. We don’t want preservatives. We don’t want soda water either, which seems to be the secret ingredient that almost always comes up in a tempura discussion among pretend experts. If you want secret ingredient, actually, there’s really none.

The batter recipe looks as simple and obvious as can be: egg yolk, water, flour, that’s it. I suppose the real secret ingredient boils down to two things: your water must be cold, and your flour, tempura-grade—that means it’s got to be low-protein, denoted in Japanese by the words, 薄力粉, haku-riki-ko (weak flour) or 薄力小麦粉, haku-riki-ko-mugi-ko (weak wheat flour), superfine flour that needs to be sifted. So, no, higher-protein all-purpose flour is not going to work, definitely not bread flour.

And here, I’d add the third thing: you can’t over-mix your batter, or you’d overwork the gluten. Overworked gluten is one sure way of killing the airy lightness that makes tempura so mysterious and delectable.

It’s absolutely fine to have little lumps of flour swimming in the batter, so the key is this: do not over-mix. Having said that, this third thing isn’t exactly ingredient as much as technique.

Sensei’s tempura moriawase with two condiments: ten-dashi sauce with a mound of daikon-oroshi (grated radish) and umami-shio (umami salt) (Photo: viv)

Meditations on Technique
This is where the Tao of Tempura gets into a kind of Shaolin realm. Finding the true path and learning the true way takes ten years, or that universally acknowledged 10,000-hour passport to mastery. Here I am, not even anywhere close to four hours of Tempura 101, let alone ten, and I’m hoping for some kind of quick initiation, some kind of magic touch.

So you really want magic touch? Here’s magic touch.

Get a pair of konebashi—tempura batter chopsticks—which I can’t seem to find anywhere, unless Takemoto Sensei would sell me a pair. Or I could simply ship myself off for a jolly Japan vacation.

Now, these are no ordinary chopsticks—they’re long, chunky, clunky sticks, as thick if not thicker than drumsticks, and their sole function is to make batter, not to clip cooked tempura. You’d use them to mush your flour into the water-yolk mixture: think pounding action versus a stirring action. Which explains why these chopsticks (bashi) are called what they’re called: kone comes from the verb koneru, or knead.

The Skill of Estimation
Sensei doesn’t really weigh or measure anything, he’d ladle his egg yolk liquid into a bowl and add the flour in slowly, with an air of calm and ease, tamping down the flour as he does so. That’s meyasu for you—the groove of having a “rough idea,” the skill of knowing exactly when to stop adding any more flour. So easy, right?

This is when hopeless pastry-trained folks like me go dizzy and helpless. I want a scale, please, let me have one now! I got it only at the afternoon practice on Day #1, but not at my exam on Day #2. Sensei shook his head when I pointed longingly at an idle digital Tanita sitting at the teacher’s station. I suspect the recipe we were given wasn’t exactly right: two parts of water to slightly over one part of flour. I swear I had been on point with my scaling on the first day. But that’s the loser talking. Sensei went tsk tsk at my practice run after my sweet potato went into the hot oil.

Ususugiru!  he said, poking my konebashi into the batter, then lifting them up to show me the sorry state of my batter going drip, drip, drip. “Too thin.” No wonder that poor, shabbily coated sweet potato was not only browning too quickly, it looked stupidly naked.

What you’re after is a nice white coat over your fried goodies, not a flimsy see-through lingerie. Batter, after all, in Japanese, is koromo, rendered like so in kanji: , literally a coat, a dress, or a piece of garment.

If you could train your mind to visualize this—a coat of batter thick enough to keep your ingredient beautifully enrobed, but thin enough not to steal the limelight from it—you’re on your way to tempura victory.

Don’t you just love that hat, and that filmy, see-through apron? (Photo: Serene Liok)

Mastering Heat
The next big challenge—that’s mine, big-time—is controlling the heat.
On Day #1, my oil had gone too hot, so hot that Sensei had to rescue it by sending glugs of oil in to tame it. Just by looking at it, he could tell me it had soared above 200ºC, way above the requisite 165ºC for the vegetables and 175ºC for the shrimps. How I wish I had eyes like his for a thermometer, short of actually having a candy thermometer in my pot!

But thermometers are for newbs and losers—scales too! All you need is to train your eye. Flick some batter into the oil and if they sink then surface in a sluggish rise, the oil’s not hot enough.

The perfect batter bubbles behave like this: they dive into the oil and rise with a vibrant energy without ever touching the bottom of the pan.

That’s the sweet spot. So easy, right?

Sweet spots, of course, don’t stay sweet for long if you crowd your pot with an ambitious fry. Fill your pan only up to a third, or half, maximum. In my kind of pan, and the kind Sensei was using, really, you’re operating in slow-poke city. Three shrimps at best at one go, or three slices of lotus root hanging out together for a lively sizzle, not more. There’s much to think about, so slow-poke may not be a bad idea.

Tempura paper needs to be folded with the top-right corner tilted right, fold it in the other direction with the top-left corner leaning left, that’s strictly for a tempura served at a funeral (Photo: viv)

At my level, my inept, amateur level, which prizes speed over patience, I really need to rewire my brains and put some zen and Shaolin into my tempura journey. I want many things, but of all the things I want, this is what I want most: I’d like to able hover my palm about an inch or so above the hot oil, just like Sensei, and go, Mō ii desu! It’s ready!

I want to master my heat, I want mastery over my oil.

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