Japanese tempura is Portuguese
Tempura are delicately battered and deep-fried vegetables and seafood. All around the world, tempura is known to be a Japanese dish. How surprised I was to hear that Japanese tempura comes from Portugal!
Whatever culinary crown Portugal was wearing once, it seems centuries ago, as apart from salt, sugar and cinnamon (the latter two, mainly in their pastry shops), I cannot see restaurants pushing culinary boundaries to catch up globally.
Portugal once was a culinary forerunner. Maybe. It sure was the leader in the spice trade and had an empire of colonies in Africa, India and Asia, with a flourishing exchange of edible goods (and slaves and missionaries – but let’s focus on the food).
There are African and Indian influences, like pepper, chilli and coriander and maybe they got soy from Macau… but Portuguese kitchens are simple and not at all experimental.
What did the Portuguese learn from their voyages to culinary leader Asia, especially from Japan?
In the 16th century Portuguese ships brought tempura (and sponge cake and other things) to isolated Japan.
Japan has since successfully incorporated and reinvented fatty Portuguese diets, turning it into artisan food. Portugal, on the other had, it seems, brought nothing back. Which is their loss!
Back to tempura, the crispy creation Japan lives off. To try ‘Portuguese’ tempura, we went to a Japanese-Korean-Asian-Fusion restaurant in Lisbon.
If you have never tasted tempura, this is where you can go:
Umai Chiado, Rua da Misericordia 78, Lisbon. The restaurant is located in a rather remote area and we were the first that evening.
Prices: more expensive than in a Japanese izakaya!
With Japanese pop artist Kyary Pamyu’s cover picture framed on the wall, the interior was trendy, the service, showing little knowledge of Japanese food, friendly.
We had a bunch of izakaya style dishes which we shared with my mum, just like in Japan, everybody getting a taste of each dish.
Miso soup was the traditional Japanese starter, which was followed by sushi mackerel.
The tempura. The way it was cooked at Umai was more chewy than the typically fluffy Japanese batter shell.
To have a (visual at least) comparison, I dug out a tempura picture from a delicious tempura restaurant in Tokyo.
Portugal, this is what tempura should look like!
And to the very right (still on the above picture), just resting on a napkin – ignoring Japanese table manners, is what a tempura shrimp food model (!) looks like. I am proud to say that I have made it myself (out of hot wax) during a food model class in Tokyo. Which was a lot of fun and should be written up asap.
Back to Portugal.
Here is our next fish dish.
We ordered a lot more to try but, although not bad at all, nothing compared to original Japanese food. Stir fry?
I don’t think foam should be part of food. Ever.
The best tasting (but less visually appealing) was dessert. Three interesting bowls of crème brûlée with sesame, macha (green tea flavoured) and plum wine.
Oh Japan, thou art a delicious one of a kind.
I shall be back, Tokyo.
For fantastic ‘Portuguese’ tempura.