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Tempura: Portugal’s Prized Gift to Japan

A few weeks ago, we attended the wedding of a dear Portuguese friend of ours in Porto who ensured that every single moment of the event was accompanied by an enormous assortment of food. From fresh fish to local cheeses and everything in between, the 12 hour long celebration was an homage to incredible cuisine. But what caught my attention, beyond all the various dishes laid out before us, was the Japanese tempura, in part because it was the first time I wondered if there was a correlation between Portuguese and Japanese cuisine.

I found this question incredibly interesting because I lived and breathed Japanese food throughout university. Diligently working my way through the final stages of my undergraduate and Masters program, I chose waitressing in various Sushi restaurants to both pay the bills and feed my insatiable appetite for Japanese food.

For those of you unfamiliar Japanese food, I highly suggest you delve deep and do some experimental research, because trust me, you will not be disappointed. Japanese food can generally broken down into a few main categories: Sushi – a relatively new addition to Japanese cuisine consisting of vinegared rice topped or mixed with various fresh, or raw, ingredients, such as fish or vegetables; Donburi – a large bowl of steamed rice topped with various ingredients, such as egg, pork, chicken or shrimp; Noodles – served either hot or cold and consisting of everything from brown buckwheat (Soba) to white wheat (Udon) noodles; grilled and pan-fried dishes, such as Gyoza or Yakitori; and deep-friend dishes like famed Tempura or Tonkatsu

Where I tend to falter, however, is with fried foods, such as Japanese Tempura. Maybe it’s because I grew up in the US, where my experience with fried food was generally a heart attack in the making, but rarely did I understand the attraction. Later, when I moved to Spain, I was shocked to find battered fried foods around every corner, and nowhere was this more evident than in Andalusia, where you’ll experience an homage to battered, fried fish. Portugal is equally obsessed with deep-fried cuisine, such as battered and fried cuttlefish, sardines, scampi, eggplant and potatoes, to name a few.

Now, you’d imagine that I might be able to connect the dots and see a correlation between Japanese and Iberian cuisine much earlier than this particular wedding, but nay, the clue-stick didn’t hit me until very recently when I learned that Japanese Tempura draws its roots from Portugal. The etymology of “tempura” is far from agreed upon, but there does appear to be a few theories that are consistently tossed around. The first theory espouses that “tempura” comes from the Portuguese word “temperar”, which means to cook, or “tempero” for cookery. The second theorizes that that the word comes from temple or church, describing religious institutions (such as Buddhism) that did not consume meat or fowl. The last theory suggests that tempura stems from the word, “têmporas”, describing the period of time (Lent, Fridays, etc) when Catholic priests did not eat meat, but rather, fish and vegetables.

What’s intriguing about the last two theories is that tempura most likely established itself in Japan as a result of the Spanish and Portuguese missionaries and traders, who introduced deep-frying in oil during the late 1500′s. And like all cultural adaptions, with time, this style of cooking became a norm. (Flickr photo by domit)

To date, I’m still not a huge fan of fried Iberian cuisine, much preferring fish right out of the sea, but to live in either Spain or Portugal, one must adapt to their cultural norms. And to honest, when done well, tempura style cuisine can be great, but that also means that my shrimp isn’t dripping in oil, a common occurrence in dive bars. The best examples ensure that the oil is consistently kept at the same temperature and that the batter is neither over-worked nor warm.

If done correctly, tempura style cooking has little residual oil remaining, just perfectly cooked ingredients.

And what do you pair with this style of cuisine? Simple, any number of Portuguese wines! Personally, I think a fresh Arinto from Bucelas, Alvarinho from Vinho Verde or an Encruzado from Dao would go swimmingly! Or even better, why not grab a Portuguese sparkling wine from Bairrada?! Then again, you could also go with a light, elegant red from Palmela on the Península de Setúbal, made from the Castelão grape, or head north of Lisbon, to Lisboa and Alenquer, in Portalegre, offering wines with great acidity and soft red fruit. The end goal is to experiment. Buy a handful of various styled wines, and with short pours, see which one is the best pairing for you. Remember, there’s never a right answer, just an opportunity to have fun and explore various flavors!

Do you have a favorite deep-fried Portuguese recipe? If so, please share it!

Cheers,

Gabriella Opaz

  • AM

    You have to try the fried cuttlefish with fried potatos and tomato salad made by Sebastião in Vendas de Azeitão. I don’t remember the name of the place, but go to the street Miguel Bombarda and ask for the “tasca do Sebastião” (goes well with the fresh white wine of the house, from the region of Palmela).

  • RichardPF

    Portugal & Spain impacted Japanese cuisine in a number of ways. In Japan, in the 17th century, there was a book called the Southern Barbarians Cookbook, a collection of Portugese & Spanish recipes. The recipes offer some important changes from prior Japanese cookbooks, from sugar confectionaries to increased use of eggs. It is a fascinating topic.

    • Gabriella Opaz

      You are so correct Richard, which is why I’ve restricted myself to Tempura to save funky future articles on other influences :) 

      • RichardPF

        Have you read “Food and Fantasy in Early Modern Japan” by Eric Rath? It is a fascinating book. 

        • Gabriella Opaz

          No but tell me about it please ;)

          • RichardPF

            It deals with Japan’s culinary history, from around the 14th-19th century, including the effect of foreign influences. It discusses various Japanese cookbooks, types and origins of cuisine, food rituals, and much more. For example, they discuss certain medieval rituals where food was prepared and served, but it was not supposed to be eaten.Instead, the foods had symbolic meanings, and sometimes you had to pretend to eat. If you want another resource for the influence of Spain and Portugal on Japanese cuisine, this would be a good one.