July 2018


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Japanese Cuisine with Foreign Roots: Tempura

Masae, a host mother, is preparing dinner in the kitchen when Sara, the study abroad student she’s hosting, peeks in to see what she’s doing.

Masae-san, what’s for dinner tonight?
Sara
Well, what do you think? Take a look at the ingredients I have laid out here and try to guess.
Masae
Shrimp and white fish. Plus sweet potato, Japanese pumpkin, eggplant, and shiso leaves. Are you making one of my favorites tonight, tempura?
Sara
That’s right! You really love Japanese food, don’t you, Sara?
Masae
Yes! I like all kinds of Japanese food, but I like tempura most of all!
Sara
Incidentally Sara, although tempura is one of Japanese cuisine’s major dishes, it also came from a foreign country initially. Did you know that?
Masae
No, I always thought it was indigenous to Japan.
Sara
There are several theories about the roots of tempura, but the general consensus is that it came to Japan from Portugal about 450 years ago, around the same time as firearms.
Masae
Really, from Portugal?
Sara
That’s right, Sara. Tempura is a Japanese dish with a deep connection to your home country, Portugal. The name tempura is also thought to have come from the Portuguese word “tempora,” meaning “a Friday festival.”
Masae
Wow, really?
Sara
During Friday festival periods, eating meat was forbidden for religious reasons, so there was a custom of eating fish coated in flour and deep fried instead. The theory is that for this reason, that dish was brought to Japan by Christian missionaries and became what we now know as tempura. There’s also another theory that the word comes from the Portuguese word “tempero,” meaning cuisine or seasoning.
Masae
Masae-san, you really know a lot about this! I had no idea about any of that. Hearing that makes me kind of happy somehow, though. To think that Portugal and Japan are connected through tempura.
Sara
Anyway, I’ve finished making the batter. Time to start frying up these ingredients.
Masae

Sara, Masae, and the host father, Tsutomu, all sit down at the table. The freshly-fried tempura is laid out for their meal.

Around the time that tempura was brought to Japan, oil was an extremely precious commodity. Making tempura requires a lot of it, so people could only eat this dish rarely. Tempura is said to have first spread among the common people in the Edo period, when cooking oil production volume increased.
Tsutomu
The Edo period is when the Tokugawa shogunate first unified Japan, right?
Sara
Exactly. At that time, the street food stalls offering convenient and affordable foods in the city of Edo were incredibly popular. Foods that we think of as gourmet cuisine like sushi, eel, and tempura all initially gained popularity as dishes sold out at these stalls.
Tsutomu
So they took tempura fresh from the oil, put it on skewers, and ate it standing in street food style.
Masae
Yeah, that sounds kind of like today’s fast food.
Sara
Tempura has been served at prestigious Japanese restaurants and specialty stores since about 150 years ago, between the end of the Edo period and the start of the Meiji period, and that’s when people started to consider it a gourmet food.
Tsutomu
Hey Sara, should I ask my husband to take you out to a gourmet tempura restaurant sometime?
Masae
No, that’s okay. After all, your tempura is already the best meal I could ever ask for, Masae-san.
Sara
Haha, thank you very much. I’m really happy to hear that. Anyway, enough talking. Let’s dig in before the tempura gets cold.
Masae

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