Nothing conveys to your dining companions that they are in good hands with you like your knowing the ins and outs of how best to partake of a chosen cuisine. Some foods, while seeming straightforward at first glance, are steeped in surprisingly esoteric practices and vernacular that would be impossible to guess for anyone not already in the know. The Japanese flash-frying cuisine style known as tempura is a prime example of this, as there is a great deal more to tempura restaurant dining than deciding what to order. Here is a primer full of valuable etiquette tips and English translations for Japanese terms you’re likely to encounter on your next trip out for some fried awesomeness. Learn them well and enjoy your role as your table’s resident tempura sage.
Let The Music Play?
A little-known indicator of a tempura restaurant’s quality is whether background music is playing inside the place. One might question how a proprietor’s decision to kick some tunes for customers to enjoy while eating can inform you about what the kitchen’s throwing down, but there’s a method to the madness. While it bears mentioning that radio or a curated playlist can be heard throughout many establishments, the finer tempura-ya will forgo aural accompaniment. This is because of the unvoiced maxim that the only “background music” that one should desire is the sweet sound of tempura cooking.
In tempura restaurant etiquette, this word used by gourmets refers to the practice of taking seats at the counter, right in front of the deep fryer. This placement is prized as the area where diners can enjoy the dish the most because it offers a direct, close-up view of the action, the better to appreciate the chef’s skills. People will often seek to make reservations for these specific seats, so reserve them first if you can.
Optimal Ingredient Sequencing
While you’re free to do you when it comes to choosing the order in which your ingredients are prepared and served, there are some things worth keeping in mind. One is that prawns, owed to the fact that they turn red when cooked, strike a visually impressive pose, making them a beautiful opening option to kick off the meal in style. When you dig in, enjoy prawns with salt, not dipping sauce, as salt enhances the flavor of the meat without masking it.
Another beat worth remembering is that conger eel should never be the first thing you order, as it requires a higher oil temperature compared to other ingredients, or it will lack for crispness. Most ingredients fry at 180˚C, whereas conger eel requires heat above 190˚C in order to come out crispy. The best way to eat it is from body to tail, with a bit of daikon on top of the body portion, then dipped in sauce. Because the eel tail is more muscular than its body, eat it with salt to get the most out of that chewy texture.
Eat Your Veggies
Don't bother searching among your condiments and accoutrements for a little dish piled with pungent pinkness. Contrary to the gari (pickled ginger) used as a palate cleanser between courses during a sushi meal, vegetable tempura is considered the refresher of choice in a tempura restaurant.
Variances in Tempura
If you’re enjoying your tempura in a buckwheat noodle shop, you may find that it differs from other forms of tempura you’ve seen. This is because in these establishments, extra batter is sometimes added to items already in the fryer, resulting in a form of cooking called hanaage (“hana” is Japanese for “flower”, and “age” means “deep frying,” thus the “Frying Flower”) technique. This big, crispy batter coating pairs perfectly with the noodles, as the coating tends to flake off the food and stick to the noodles as one eats, enhancing their flavor.
The Language of Tempura
Here are a few Japanese words and their English meanings to keep in your back pocket:
Agedai – The wooden plate on which tempura is served. Because ceramic dinnerware tends to be cold, your tempura should arrive on a wooden plate to maintain its fresh-from-the-fryer heat.
Coarse sea salt
Daikon oroshi – Grated daikon, a type of radish served with tempura
Dontsuyu – A rich sauce made from dashi broth, soy sauce, sugar and other seasonings, that gets poured over a tempura rice bowl. The thicker the tempura coating, the more flavorful sauce it will soak up.
Kakiage – A fritter-style tempura dish consisting of thinly-sliced vegetable mixed with chopped shrimp, cuttlefish, or other seafood. Rooted in the kind of at-home improvisation that comes with using whatever is on hand, this is a dish whose ingredient list allows for wide variation.
Renkon – Lotus root
Tencha – A common ending to a full course tempura meal, this is a bowl of rice served topped with kakiage or a small portion of tempura, and green tea poured over it. To prepare tencha, flour gets mixed with fresh clams or other seafood and Mitsuba, after which batter is mixed in. The tempura is fried, and more batter gets drizzled on top as it cooks to make the end result bigger and crisper. Pouring tea over the rice, not over the kakiage is the way to go when eating this dish. By not soaking the crisp-edged tempura with liquid, one can enjoy the texture of the tempura and rice together.
Tenshi – The paper placed on the agedai before plating the tempura. It absorbs excess oil to maintain the crispness of the fried foods placed upon it.
Tentsuyu – Dipping sauce that accompanies tempura at restaurants. The recipe for this sauce can vary in accordance with the seasons as well as the food for which it is being prepared, though typical base ingredients include soy sauce, mirin, and dashi broth.
Japanese cuisine is a joy to behold long before you take that first bite of a meal, and this is especially true of the spectacle that is tempura. By getting better acquainted with the cooking style, it becomes clear that there's more to it than just swirling batter-dipped foods around in hot oil. There's a culture and an order and lexicon involved in enjoying it to its utmost, and these things lie in wait for patient observers just beneath the sizzle of frying treats.