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We think of tempura as a Japanese dish, but its origins lie in the seafood fritters eaten on meatless Ember Days (quattuor tempora) by Catholics – like the Spanish and Portuguese missionaries who followed St Francis Xavier to Japan in the late 16th century. Christianity had a hard time establishing itself in this feudal Buddhist empire, but this little culinary spin-off was welcomed with open arms. There’s even a legend that the death of the first Tokugawa ruler, Ieyasu, in 1616, resulted from a surfeit of sea bream tempura.
The key to a good tempura batter is not, as many would have it, the use of egg yolk: the light, low-cholesterol version made by Gennaro Russo, executive chef of Le Sirenuse’s Michelin-starred La Sponda restaurant, dispenses with egg entirely. What is essential is ice-cold water, which makes the batter more viscous, and thus more liable to adhere closely to the surface of the food that is dipped into it. Like many chefs, Russo prefers sparkling to still water for his tempura, but you can use either.
In southern Italy, especially around the Bay of Naples, la paranza is a type of small fishing trawler, but also the name for the assortment of fish that would be left in its net once the breams and other highly-prized species had been picked out. These mixed varieties are typically sold cheaply by fishmongers for fry-ups – they are quite literally the ‘small fry’.
400g cleaned small shrimps
400g cleaned cuttlefish
400g assorted small ‘paranza’ fish for frying
1 litre sunflower or peanut oil, or enough to cover the fish
salt to taste
for the tempura batter:
100g potato starch
200g fine white flour (Italian ‘00’ quality or equivalent)
3g baking powder
100ml ice-cold sparkling mineral water
Remove the head, tail and shell of the shrimps – or get a fishmonger to do this for you. Clean the cuttlefish, removing the hard parts of the head (including the eyes) and rinse well in running water. Again, a good fishmonger should oblige. Cut the cuttlefish into appropriate-sized chunks, and dry all the seafood well with absorbent paper.
Next, make the tempura batter. Put the sparkling mineral water in a bowl and add the sieved potato starch, flour and baking powder. Whisk briskly as you would with pancake batter, but don’t worry about removing every tiny lump. As you finish whisking, add the salt. Place the bowl inside a larger bowl containing iced water: tempura batter needs to be kept as cold as possible.
Pour the oil into a deep copper pan, or an electric fryer, up to a depth of 6-9cm (2-3 inches) and heat to around 175°C (347°C). When it’s ready, dip the seafood into the batter in batches, to coat it, place it gently in the hot oil, taking care not to splash, and fry until golden brown. Remove with tongs or a slotted spoon, place on absorbent kitchen paper to drain off excess oil, and sprinkle with salt and pepper to taste. Serve in cones of yellow butcher’s paper for an informal ‘street food’ effect, with a slice of Amalfi lemon.
Photos © Roberto Salomone