Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Dip me in batter and call me Tempura

Royal Pines Hotel
Saintama City, Japan
August 26, 2008
4 grains of rice

Japan is a country that specializes in . . . well . . specializing. Walking down any street in a Japanese city will bring you past a variety of specialized, single food restaurants. Sushi, Yakatori, Soba, Udon, Ramen, etc. Each kind of restaurant is denoted by a special marker outside – a red lantern, a blue curtain, a sake keg. So when you have a particular craving in Japan, all you need to do is find the right signal and you are good to go.

Tonight, for me, the craving was tempura. I am in Japan for work and once I found the name of the hotel I was staying in, I immediately looked it up on the all-knowing Interwebs and saw that the had a tempura restaurant. I’ve heard about them a lot, and even seen them on TV, but had never been to one so I already had my first meal planned out (yes, I am such a food geek that I plan my work trips by the food I might eat there).

So tonight’s dinner took place at Arakawa on the 5th floor of the Royal Pines Hotel in Saintama City, Japan.

Now for most people in the United States (where I am from) Tempura means a deep fried piece of shrimp, usually heavily breaded and served along side the main dish (a bento box, some sushi perhaps). But Tempura done right allows the method of cooking to showcase the different tastes, textures, colors and shapes that nature has to offer, depending on the season. Well, my meal tonight was the bets, most extensive demonstration of the tempura art I have ever tasted.

The setting was a simple bar with about 10 seats facing a tempura chef. He worked in a small area with a copper wok with hot oil (I assumed peanut), a tray of rice flour and a bowl of batter made from rice flour and water. This was his canvas. His palette was a huge tray of vegetables and a small fridge of seafood from which he painted a glorious portrait of tastes and textures. The dinner was a fixed course affair with too many dishes to recall, but it included about a dozen small, bite sized morsels including okra, sweet potato, a slice of onion, shrimp, sea eel, anchovies, squid, pumpkin, asparagus, and a few items hard to pin down (one appeared to be fish bones, another a small crab I had never seen before). Perhaps the most exquisite was the scallop wrapped in a shiso leaf. The chef also prepared a final seafood and veggie fritter that was dipped in soy and served over a bed of rice and garnished with lime rind.

All was done with an efficiency of motion and concentration that is hard to describe. Line a seamstress, or a machinist going through motions performed a thousand times before, the chef (yamatama-san) prepared tidbits for the 10 peoples seated before him calmly, quickly, all belying the monstrously hot cauldron of oil perkind before him. His only tools – a sharp knife and a long paid of steel tipped chopsticks.

The best dish was from the chef menu, which I was asked to pick from a variety. I picked well, considering the menu was in Japanese – a language I don’t read. I simply asked for the chef’s pick. He disappeared and returned with a large clam (about the size of a lemon, shucked, dusted and fried it all in about 30 seconds and served it to me in its own shell. It tasted like the sea itself, with a creamy, light texture that I have never had before. Just astounding.

All were served with a light dipping tempura sauce and alongside a tray with seven flavored salts (wasabi, ginger, red pepper, Japanese herb, paprkika, squid ink and kelp). Hard for me to tell the difference, but all were good.

While I don’t expect people to make the trip to this particular place, I do recommend finding real tempura and enjoying how it can accentuate the delicacy and different characteristics of food. More importantly, I hope you’ll get to see a master in action, preparing fried foods that are neither heavy of greasy, only heavenly and done with a quiet pride that I hope to enjoy again . . . . soon!!