An authentic Japanese tempura meal is an adventure in sensory perception for the eyes, ears, nose, and - most importantly - mouth. The perfect tempura is a culinary magnus opus that transforms a usually dense fried batter into a crispy coating as light as air. In the streets of Tokyo, tempura masters have been working to create a faultless koromo batter since the 16th century and there’s no better place to search out their secrets.
Chop, batter, fry – and so much more
Tempura is as appealing in its apparent simplicity as it is in hidden complexity. A tempura chef’s every step is choreographed in connection with the rest. Each movement relates to the next – the oil, for example, blended and heated to enhance flavour when the hand-mixed batter is added to the pot. It’s a constant dance of variables with heat and consistency adapted to suit every ingredient, for a finished product that’s crisp on the outside and steamed on the inside.
From fast food to Michelin-starred masterpiece
In the thriving Tokyo Bay of Japan’s Edo period, tempura found its simple start when food stalls in the harbour began to batter and fry fish for a busy workforce. Rapidly rising from a proletarian trend to a cultural classic, tempura is now known as one of the great “Edo Delicacies.”
The original koromo recipe is still honoured by many tempura chefs who remain dedicated to the same fresh seafood and seasonal produce for their creations. Regardless of international acclaim and Michelin stars, Tokyo’s best tenpura-ya restaurants share a few traits in common; as a rule they are small, usually seating only 8-12 guests. Stepping into these restaurants from the organized chaos of Tokyo’s intensely lively streets feels a bit like entering a Zen garden. Passionate tempura chefs never hide their work behind doors or curtains. With tranquil Japanese pride they display the ingredients of their magic: handpicked seafood, organic vegetables, sauces of soy and ginger and salts of the sea and green tea.
By Western standards, a basement isn’t the best location for a restaurant. But for the owner of Seiju the simple setting is insignificant in comparison with the location - within walking distance of Tokyo’s infamous Tsukiji fish market. The dedicated tempura chef selects his ingredients himself every morning to cook and serve one piece at a time to his guests, earning him a Michelin star for many years running.
The two-starred delights at Tempura Kondō honour the customs of the past while striding unapologetically into the future. Chef Kondō’s sweet potatoes are fried gently for up to 30 minutes - considered to be an eternity in the realm of tempura. He stands by his creative techniques, and also by his customers; Mr. Kondō politely declined a 2014 request for a table for former President Barack Obama because it would have meant cancelling his pre-booked guests.
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This is one of the only tempura restaurants in Tokyo to be awarded three Michelin stars, although local legend says that the owner/chef has voluntarily unlisted himself from the directory. Rumour also has it that the restaurant offers the most expensive tempura in Tokyo which loyal followers believe to be well worth the price.
This tenpura-ya is run by a husband and wife who move effortlessly around each other to create their tempura masterpieces. The devoted team make tempura in their signature blend of corn and sesame oil while telling tales of their past.
Recently upgraded to two Michelin stars, Uchitsu serves a course menu of tempura interspersed with other traditional Japanese delicacies like fresh fish sashimi. The restaurant is unique in its forested décor and its avant-garde offerings like Camembert and wasabi leaf tempura.