Tempura, in all its crispy glory, is often seen as a simple dish this side of the world. Indeed, some would even make the mistake of labelling it as another form of junk food simply because it’s deep fried. Yet chefs who preside over the many authentic Japanese tempura restaurants would protest — getting the perfect tempura is an art as much as a science.
For starters, the coating has to be crispy with insides that are cooked just right. This is no mean feat as the the batter, oil type and temperature play a massive part. As with much of Japanese cuisine, premium Japanese tempura restaurants also use only the finest seasonal ingredients. Think along the lines of the freshest seafood caught and fried only when its flavours are at its prime, and specific varieties of vegetables sourced from across Japan’s many prefectures.
The Japanese in fact, take this dish so seriously that Tokyo alone is home to at least 10 Michelin-starred tempura specialists. Three of these restaurants have two Michelin stars to their name, thrusting them in the same league as Singapore’s fine dining temples like Odette. Naturally, these are no rowdy spots but intimate counter-seating establishments that resemble the best omakase restaurants.
While Singapore can’t yet boast of Japanese tempura restaurants with such accolades, there are some excellent spots where good versions can be had. Some are more formal, others yet serve it atop a rice bowl (called tendon). Whatever fits your appetite, here are 5 delicious places to tuck in to this dish.
Ippoh Tempura Bar is one of Osaka’s oldest tempura specialists and here, fifth generation tempura chef Masaru Seki helms the space that seats just 18, 12 of which are counter seats. Expect chef Seki to handle each piece of tempura with utmost care and respect as all dishes are fried individually in safflower oil.
Tenshin is one of the first specialist Japanese tempura restaurants in Singapore. The vibe here is casual but take a quick look at its patrons and you’d soon realise that the place is popular with business travellers. The menu moves with the seasons and fresh seafood is flown from Tsukiji Market on Wednesdays and Saturdays. If you’re in a rush, dive into the tendon bowl where vegetable and seafood tempura are served in a rice bowl with a side of pickles, miso soup and a dessert to polish off your meal. If you’re up for a longer meal though, order the Yuki set where 11 types of tempura will be served the full experience of appetisers, salads and several rice courses.
Tendon bowls take centre stage at casual 44-seater Japanese eatery Kogane Yama where generous mounds of tempura sit atop fluffy short grained rice. The batter mix here is made with fish seasoning and then deep-fried in a blend of sesame and soy bean oil. The result? Piping hot tempura that’s perfectly crispy with a good tinge of umami. Choose between the chicken, prawn or vegetable bowls, but those looking for a little bit of everything can order the mixed bowl which comes with prawn tempura and chicken fillet for the meats and vegetables like long beans, carrots and shiso leaf. Polish off your meal with the calpis soda which can help to cut through the richness of the tempura.
Turn your nose up at Wisma Atria’s Japan Food Town and you would be mistaken. The eateries here are casual, but they have the solid backing of the Japanese government which gives unbridled access to culinary talent and the finest ingredients from across the land of the rising sun. Tempura Tsukiji Tenka is one such spot. The space is staffed by graduate chefs from Tokyo Sushi Academy – the premiere culinary school responsible for training up some of the world’s best sushi chefs. Expect slightly rarer finds thanks to this privileged access, like anago tempura – sea eel that sits like a giant hunk of fish fillet across your tendon.
Walk past this buzzy ground floor eatery at Tanjong Pagar after work hours and you’ll see groups of executives and the odd Japanese salaryman waiting to get in. Turns out, they’re on to something. Tendon Ginza Itsuki is popular Japanese company Ramen Keisuke’s eighth concept and as it name implies, specialises in tendon (tempura on rice). Like many of its outlets, the menu is kept small: Only two types of tendon sets are offered here – the special tendon which comes with prawn, chicken, vegetables and a half boiled egg, and the vegetable tendon topped with the usual suspects of pumpkin, shiitake mushrooms and, our personal favourite, eggplant.