Pictured recipe: Shrimp & Vegetable Kakiage Tempura
When I see asparagus at the farmers' market in springtime, or eggplants and carrots growing in my summer garden, I get inspired to make kakiage. Kakiage is an "all-in-one" tempura. It consists of bits of vegetables or a combination of seafood and vegetables deep-fried into a fritter. I love deep-frying vegetables, especially when I see good ones, because deep-frying is like steaming: You seal the moisture and flavor of the ingredient and its nutrients inside that crispy crust. You can taste the sweetness and umami that a boiled vegetable just can't deliver. I learned early on in my life that onions turned magically sweet when deep-fried. It became one of my favorite kakiage ingredients.
Kakiage was a staple on the lunch menu at my school in Japan. The batter was thick and heavy-in fact, it was mostly batter and onions. Made earlier in the day and reheated, these kakiage fritters didn't live up to the crispy ones my mother made, but still had a hearty chew.
Kakiage was my mother's strategy to get her five children to eat more vegetables. It was also a clever way to get rid of kitchen scraps in the fridge. Sometimes, we got lucky and had pieces of cut-up shrimp in the kakiage mix.
Once, when we were living in Pasadena, California, my parents invited the high priest of the Todaiji temple in Nara, Japan, to our house. My mother decided she would make tempura. I remember how austere the priest looked with his shiny shaved head and black robe. My mother, along with her kitchen helpers-which included me and my two sisters-peeled the shrimp, chopped the onions and minced the mitsuba leaves.
My mother reserved the jumbo shrimp for the priest and served it to him whole, right out of the hot sizzling oil. But soon after, she realized the dire mistake she had made: Many Buddhist practitioners are vegan, and, of course, being the high priest of a famous Buddhist temple, he was one. In a slight panic mode, my mother rushed back to the kitchen to make a vegetable kakiage, assembling the bowl with bits of onions and herbs, and directed me to julienne some carrots. While the commotion was happening in the kitchen, the priest went on talking to my father and nonchalantly took a bite of the tail of the shrimp to show appreciation to my mother. Visiting a Japanese home in America was probably a nice break for the priest, even if the meal started wrong. He praised my mother's vegetable kakiage.
About 10 years ago, I apprenticed with Takashi Hosokawa, a soba master in Tokyo. He is famous for his handmade soba noodles but also for his tempura. People line up to come eat at his small soba shop. I went in every day, primarily as a dishwasher for a few weeks. He made tempura look so easy. Yes, there was the fresh oil (mostly light sesame oil), the tin-lined copper pot for frying, the super-light cake flour and the chilled egg water on standby, but what impressed me the most was the energy he expended in sourcing the best seasonal vegetables for making tempura. I saw him get mad when he was dissatisfied with the crunch of the carrot that had just arrived from a farm in Kyoto. Throughout the day, he was tasting a noodle or a vegetable he had just cooked, and would give me pieces to taste, too. He would say "Saku Saku" when he approved the quality of the tempura. Saku saku is the sound and texture you experience when you take the first bite. Saku saku described everything that mattered: freshness, lightness and airiness. I am still on my pursuit to make that perfect tempura.
Make it at home:
Shrimp & Vegetable Kakiage Tempura
This light and crispy tempura combines shrimp, onions, carrots and herbs and looks similar to a fritter. I serve it with sea salt and lemon wedges or with soy sauce, with rice and pickles on the side and fruit for dessert.
Sonoko Sakai is a teach and writer based in California. She is the author of several cookbooks, including Japanese Home Cooking. Visit her website at sonokosakai.com and follow her on Instagram @sonokosakai.