A few years ago I got a glimpse at the high art of tempura cooking while visiting Kyoto at an elegant restaurant called Tenyu, and I never forgot it. (See this blog post, too.) Mrs. Sachiyo Imai introduced me. Besides being Miss Kyoto in 1953 and a master of the Japanese classic arts (plus a mean piano player), Mrs. Imai is a noted Kyoto food scholar, author, and television and radio host, and an all-around amazing person (read about her in the 2008 Saveur 100, and my post). Now that I'm back in Kyoto, Mrs. Imai and I headed to Tenyu again, along with a friend named Nemo, who was kind enough to translate.
The tiny restaurant has a only a U-shaped dining counter, with the chef working in the center. I watched the chef add oil to a specialized tempura pot, which he explained is made from copper and steel. He uses only cottonseed oil, which I found surprising. I've read that tempura chef often use a combination of oils, including sesame oil, to impart flavor to ingredients. "This is Kyoto style," he answered, explaining that he aims for a lighter, more delicate kind of tempura. I watched him mix the tempura batter--barely, so not to stretch the glutens in the flour, to keep the tempura crispy rather than chewy. The chef serves tempura in courses, one ingredient at a time. He started with shrimp, cooking it seconds and serving himself. We ate it with salt and sansho. The shrimp was delicate, tender and sashimi inside, encased in a crispy, light crust. Mrs. Imai pointed to the paper lining my plate. "No oil," she said. She was right. For an ingredient that was just deep fried, there no oil dripping off. The chef explained that he adjusts the batter to match the moisture of each ingredient, and switches tempura pots during cooking to keep the oil clean. We also tasted asparagus, kisu, a type of whiting, hamo eel, Kamo eggplant and Fushimi togarashi, a local pepper. Incredible. What amazed me, too, is how hot the ingredients became inside, even though they were so quickly deep fried--and just perfectly cooked through. Check out the photos and video. (Tenyu, telephone (075) 212-7778, Gokomachi Sanjo Sagaru)