Seafood and vegetables covered in a thin, crispy batter is one food that is, I believe, best eaten outside than at home. It is hard to recreate this dish at home, even for a chef. This article from Metropolis magazine highlights some of my favorite shops in Tokyo for tempura including Kondo, Mikawa, Daikokuya, Tenya, and Tsunahachi. A basic recipe is included for the brave.
http://archive.metropolis.co.jp/tokyo/664/localflavors.asp (text follows)
tempura can be ethereal, especially in the late fall and early winter: earthy mushrooms, crunchy renkon (lotus root) and sweet potatoes. Delicate, lacy batter covering vegetables fried al dente so they still retain a crunch is one of my favorites; seafood—shrimp, scallops or aji that steams and bursts of juice when bitten into—is also delicious. Even low-end tempura, if it’s hot and fresh out of the oil, can be a satisfying alternative to fast food.
The classic tempura meal starts with shrimp, followed by a parade of vegetables, and then more shrimp and other seafood. These are garnished with tsuyu dipping sauce and grated daikon, or natural sea salt with a wedge of lemon. The decision to dip or not to dip into the tsuyu is up to you. At the end, finish off with a bowl of rice, some pickles and akadashi (dark) miso soup.
Look out for the bamboo basket nestling seasonal vegetables behind the counter at this Ginza institution. Two chefs prepare items to be fried, while
a third dips them lightly into the batter. His job includes managing the batter and the oil so they are just the right consistencies and temperature. Kimono-clad waitresses change the paper under each item with each course. 9F Sakaguchi Bldg, 5-5-13 Ginza, Chuo-ku. Tel: 03-5568-0923.
This place is hard to find, but well worth the effort. Located in a residential area of Kayabacho, Mikawa is a step back in time. On a recent visit, an elderly woman sitting next to me said that she has been coming religiously for years. On your way out, they give you a small bag of tenkasa to take home. Tenkasa are the tiny bits of batter leftover from the frying process. The shop manager suggested I add it to a bowl of soba for dinner that evening. 3-4-7 Kayabacho, Chuo-ku. Tel: 03-3664-9843.
Fans of shrimp tempura shouldn’t miss the ten-don at Daikokuya, located in Asakusa on a side street off Nakamise Dori. The large fried shrimp on a bowl of rice dressed with a sweetened soy sauce attracts long lines of patient customers on weekends, so go early. 1-38-10 Asakusa, Minato-ku. Tel: 03-3844-1111.
This Tsukiji shop is one of my favorites, especially the anago tempura over a bowl of rice. The eel is so long that it drapes over the entire bowl. Stall 6, 5-2-1 Tsukiji, Chuo-ku. Tel: 03-3547-6766.
For fast food tempura, check out Tenya, which has shops all over the city. Their tendon with shrimp and vegetables on a bowl of rice with sauce drizzled over it is a good alternative to grabbing a hamburger. If you prefer your tempura crispy, ask for the teishoku set where your tempura is served on its own plate and not on the rice. www.tenya.co.jp
The main branch of Tsunahachi is in Shinjuku Sanchome, but I often find myself at the eat-in counter in the basement of Takashimaya Times Square. There is also a shop in the restaurant mall on the 13th floor. Another option is to buy some tempura to take home and make your own donburi, or use it to top off a bowl of soba or udon. B1/13F Takashimaya Times Square, 5-24-2 Sendagaya, Shibuya-ku. Tel: 03-5361-1111. www.tunahachi.co.jp/en/index.html
There are a few key points to keep in mind when making tempura at home: Start with fresh ingredients, make a lumpy batter and keep your oil at a constant temperature. Making the batter at the last minute and not mixing it well enough can make the difference between good and great tempura. Your instinct may be to integrate the ingredients thoroughly, but resist temptation. (At the fine tempura restaurants you will see the bowl has a ring of flour around the edge.) With a pair of chopsticks, gently mix two egg yolks with two cups of ice cold water and two cups of flour. Prep your items to be fried into bite-size pieces. Dry the ingredients, lightly coat with flour, dip in the batter and then drop gently into 170°C oil. Shrimp, squid, delicate whitefish, eel and scallops are all recommended, as are most vegetables. Kakiage is a mélange of ingredients, chopped up into bits, and fried up in a small bundle.
Whether in a fast-food joint or in an upscale restaurant, tempura
in the fall showcases the season’s harvest. Treat yourself while the ingredients are still at their best.