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History & Origin of Tempura 天ぷら • Japanese Changed a Portuguese Dish to their Taste

Most of us have tasted tempura, the iconic Japanese fried vegetable, fish, and seafood dish. Many of us like it but some of us may be surprised that the Japanese learned to prepare this dish from the Europeans, Portuguese specifically.

And, it was fairly recently in historical terms. 

Just some 500+ years ago. 

Portuguese traders established a trading post in Nagasaki, Japan in 1549. 

The Portuguese have an oil fried vegetable dish known as peixinhos da horta (they still do today). It is a simple dish of fresh green pea pods coated with a wheat flour and egg batter, oil fried till it is brown and crisp outside. The fresh green pea pods shielded from direct contact with the hot oil remain juicy, crunchy and sweet inside. 

The Japanese learned how to oil fry green pea pods from the Portuguese and called it tempura, from the Latin phrase ad temporal cuaresme which means Lent. The Japanese probably picked up the dish from Portuguese missionaries cooking the somewhat austere peixinhos da horta for ad temporal cuaresme (days when the Jesuit missionaries abstained from eating meat). 

Alternatively, the word tempura could have come from the Portuguese word for seasoning, tempero. Or, temporos, the Portuguese word for spice.

This is still debated among historians but there is consensus that the original dish was peixinhos da horta.

At first only green pea pods ala 
peixinhos da horta were battered and oil fried, but soon, the Japanese also oil fry other vegetables (sweet potato, lotus root, etc), as well as fish (e.g. capelin / shishamo, unagi, etc), seafood (uni, squid, shrimp, crab, abalone, etc), mushrooms, even fruits, etc., thus creating the uniquely Japanese way of frying battered food. The Japanese had turned a humble Portuguese fried pea dish into anything goes as long as it suits their tastebuds, and that's the way the culinary world roll. 

The batter known as koromo in Japanese was thin, light and some recipes called for a dash of sake. 

In 1635, Tokugawa Iemitsu, shōgun of Japan from 1623 to 1651 issued the Sakoku Edict (Sakoku-rei, 鎖国令). Under the edict, the Portuguese, along with all their European compatriots were kicked out of Japan in 1635, mainly for their evangelical work (well, except the Dutch who promised not to convert the locals and hence were allowed to stay). 

Documents were destroyed under the Sakoku Edict which contributed to the difficulty today in pinpointing the exact origin of tempura.

Fortunately, tempura the Portuguese legacy remained in Japanese kitchens and soon became an essential part of Japanese cuisine and culture. Tempura became a popular "yatai" steet food stall dish in Edo (precursor of today's Tokyo). Soon, there were even tempura-ya(s), restaurants that specialise in serving tempura dishes.

So, the quality of tempura ranges from fast food stall style to high art at fine restaurants with genteel ingredients like uni or sea urchin, abalone, and such luxuries - a far cry from green pea pods of Jesuit monks during Lent. 

A lot had gone on between Japan and the outside world since 1639 and today this global oil fried phenomenon is associated more with Japan than Portugal. Peixinhos da horta has changed so much that the Portuguese connection with tempura is not apparent to most people. 

The next time you taste tempura, remember its Portuguese roots that go back to the 1500s.

Next topic - how did the Portuguese know how to oil fry their food?

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Written by Tony Boey on 13 May 2024


Image credit:

Image of tempura courtesy of Pexels, image of Portuguese black ship courtesy of Flickr, Youtube screenshot courtesy of Teresa Activa, Youtube screenshot courtesy of Momentos Doces e Salgadosimage of Tokugawa Iemitsu courtesy of Wikipedia, image of tempura courtesy of Wikipedia.

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