Whether you’ve got an air fryer, a deep fryer, or are going to cook up some tempura in a pan, vegetable tempura is a great way to eat a much healthier version of fried food, and a neat trick for getting those who don’t like vegetables to eat them (kids, of course, but maybe you’d prefer to eat your green beans battered and fried too sometimes). Make vegetable tempura and you’ll have a whole medley of fresh veggies on your dinner table in one side dish that won’t be ignored. So: which vegetables are ready to batter up? Here’s a list of tempura vegetables perfectly suited for frying, plus some interesting insight on the history of tempura, and what makes the best golden brown batter ingredients.
Tempura Fugit: Tempura’s History
Tempura is thought of today as a Japanese dish made of battered and fried fish, shellfish, or vegetables (or all of the above). Interestingly enough, tempura was actually brought to Japan by Portuguese sailors in 1543. Three Portuguese sailors were sailing on a Chinese ship that was blown off course, and landed instead on the Japanese island, Tanegashima. The first Europeans to walk on Japanese soil, these Portuguese men (Antonio da Mota, Antonio Peixoto, and Francisco Zeimoto) were a very strange sight due to their distinctly non-Japanese European features. Nevertheless, for nearly the next century, arms-dealing and other sorts of trading began (tobacco, soap, wool, etc.) between the Japanese and the Portuguese.
The trading prospered until the Portuguese were banished from Japanese territory in 1639, due to worries of cultural contamination from Western Christianity. The banishment came too late, as there was already at least one religiously inspired foreign cultural influence that had left its mark on Japan forever: a food called peixinhos da horta. Meaning “little fishes from the garden,” these battered and fried green beans were often eaten by the Portuguese during Lent, when Catholics were under instruction to stop eating meat (including fish). In Japan they became known as tempura due to a misunderstanding of the Latin/Spanish phrase ad tempora Cuaresma, or “during the time of Lent.” The dish is now widely seen as a staple of Japanese cuisine, right up there with sushi. Tempus fugit: as time flies so do these long-ago memories.
Interestingly enough, tempura wasn’t the only Portuguese cuisine that was exported to another country’s culture. They brought carne de vinha d’alhos to India, which is today known as vindaloo, egg tarts to China, and the pork and beans stew feijoada to Brazil (which is now Brazil’s national dish). In fact, India has a tempura-style dish too, called pakora. There’s a little sea-faring history for you!
What Is Tempura?
Unrestricted from any Catholic ban on eating fish, tempura dishes in Japan did come to include seafood and more, from shrimp, to white fish, kabocha squash (aka Japanese pumpkin), to shiitake mushrooms, to carrots, to sweet potatoes…pretty much everything. Coated in batter that is basically made up of egg, flour, and cold water, fried to a light golden brown, and often served with soy sauce as a flavorful dipping sauce, tempura can be just about anything you want it be. Add starch or spices to the batter, use different sorts of oils to fry it in, batter up some tofu or bell peppers or pickles if you want, it’s your call. Kakiage tempura is made up of multiple shredded vegetables and fried into cakes that look like little haystacks. People have even found you can fry noodles, fruit, and ice cream with this cold batter method: the possibilities are seemingly endless.
The Benefits of Tempura
Not to bring the religious origins of the food up again, but a lot of people consider a fried vegetable an oxymoron, like committing a “healthy sin.” However, what does make tempura healthier than other batters in the fried food world is that it uses no bread crumbs and quite a bit less grease. The flour for tempura recipes can contain rice flour, all-purpose flour, baking powder, salt, or black pepper and other spices, and can also be made with or without an egg. So even if you’re vegetarian, vegan, or gluten free, you can fry some vegetables too!
Mix the tempura batter in a large bowl with cold water or club soda, leave it a bit lumpy, coat and then drop your battered veggies into a pan of hot oil at high heat (375 °F, use a thermometer to keep the temperature consistent between batches). Frying time takes no more than 2-3 minutes, and the kind of oil you use is again a matter of preference and choice—a lot of recipes online call for vegetable oil or canola oil, but you can use the healthier olive oil or coconut oil as well, whatever’s already beside your stovetop. Be sure to drop your fried foods onto a drying rack or paper towel plate to remove the excess oil, and then serve it as a side, a main course, or a lunchtime snack.
When making tempura at home, start with what you’ve got in your cupboards, and the next time keep experimenting until you find the combo you like best. As long as you don’t burn the food or burn down the house, you almost can’t go wrong. That being said, the best practice would be to eat while you’ve got hot and crispy tempura, and not to let it sit too long (soggy tempura is bad tempura). Otherwise, one of the best benefits tempura has always had is that it’s extremely adaptable.
So you’ve got the batter mix ready, and you’ve got your history factoids to chat about over the stove: great! Now, which vegetables should you be battering for tempura? While there’s a wide variety of veggies that can be cooked this way, here is a list of some of the best vegetables to give the tempura treatment.
Classic Tempura Vegetables
Found in traditional recipes, these are the more classic Asian vegetables that can be fried in tempura.
The lotus root is actually the stem of the lotus plant, which can grow as tall as 4 feet to raise the flowering bud of this aqueous plant out of the water. When sliced, the distinctly wheel-patterned disks of the lotus root can be fried in tempura and will add a visually appealing vegetable to your plate.
A member of the mint family, this leaf is more reminiscent of basil in taste, and, like parsley, is too often relegated to the side as a garnish. However, the shiso leaf can be battered on one side and fried along with your other veggies, and then plated as an edible garnish or used to hold a scoop of rice for handheld bites.
The kabocha squash (also known as a Japanese pumpkin) is a winter squash that can be cut up into little crescent moon-shaped slices and fried up for a sweet taste, sweeter even than butternut squash. It’s similar in both texture and vibrant orange coloring to sweet potatoes and pumpkins.
Shiitake mushrooms tempura will bring a woodsy flavor and a springy texture to your vegetable fry medley. Used traditionally in food and in medicine in Asian cultures, shiitake mushrooms are a classic tempura ingredient.
The fish of the garden, remember? The original tempura vegetable, the green bean definitely belongs on this side of the classic/modern divide. Cook it up tempura-style, and tell your friends and family about the historical background of this dish.
Modern Tempura Vegetables
These ingredients are more likely to be found in your kitchen and grocery store, and for that reason alone it might be fun to take these standard modern veggies and fry them up in a unique and relatively healthy way.
Batter up some broccoli florets and take this cruciferous green to the next level. Soften it up and cover it in batter, and see if you can’t get the kids in your life to eat some broccoli without gagging—plus maybe get more excited to eat broccoli yourself!
A nightshade plant, bell peppers of any color (or all the colors) are a great way to add a bright, light addition to the variety of vegetables you’re going to fry up for dinner.
Great for shredding up if you want to make kakiage-style tempura cakes, carrots can be combined with onions, string beans, shrimp, or anything else you think will mesh together well. What’s fun about kakiage is that it’s a mix-up of whatever you’ve got, then held together by the tempura batter. Plate it over a bowl of soba noodles or rice to keep it in the Asian realm of dish presentation.
Snap pea tempura is made by just snipping the ends of the snap peas off and battering away. Cook them up and dunk them in any tempura dipping sauce you like to enjoy.
Just like broccoli, chopped cauliflower is another cruciferous vegetable (meaning it’s from the cabbage family of plants) that can be easily fried up in tempura batter and added to the mix.
Those tiny baby corns have been harvested early and thus are edible all the way through: drop them into a tempura batter and come out with little corn fritters on the other end of the fry-up process.
Not unlike kabocha squash, the sweet potato is a Western ingredient that can be treated, cooked, and enjoyed much the same way as the more classic, traditional option. Basically: it’ll do in a pinch for a perfect kabocha stand-in.
Another nightshade vegetable, fried okra is already a staple in Southern U.S. cooking. Instead of adding cornbread and cayenne to the batter, why not make it a little more Far Eastern by coating okra in a tempura batter? That way you get a lighter version of an old favorite.
Sliced up in round disks or cut up into sticks, zucchini can be fried up in tempura to add as veggie chips or fries to tonight’s dinner.
It’s Tempura Time
Whether it’s the vegetable contribution to a big family fry-up, or a way to make vegetables more kid friendly for your table’s pickiest eaters, vegetable tempura is an easy recipe that makes a very impressive side or even main dish. Order the more traditional version the next time you’re at a Japanese restaurant for comparison, and don’t be afraid to bring tempura home and make it your own.