Tempura: Japan’s Fried But Fluffy Gourmet Fritters

When it comes to popular Japanese dishes that’ve made a tasty impression all over the world, 天ぷら tempura is surely one of the heavy hitters. That may be because it has so many similarities to comfort foods around the world. While tempura packs some unique and delicious Japanese flavor, the dish largely consists of lightly battered, deep-fried seafood and vegetables, meaning no matter where you’re traveling from, it’ll likely remind you of something you love back home! It’s also food-friendly to meat lovers and vegetarians alike.

What is tempura?

Tempura are lightly battered and deep fried pieces of vegetables and seafood (although the style of cooking can be applied to other ingredients as well). The combination of light battering and fresh, seasonal ingredients gives it a crispy texture that preserves the flavor and texture of the fish or vegetable used, making tempura a popular Japanese food mainstay that is often enjoyed with soba or udon noodles, on top of rice bowls with sauce, or simply on their own!

Tempura can be enjoyed on its own, but it’s also a popular topping for soba noodles.

Where to get tempura

Tempura can be enjoyed at both chains and more high-scale restaurants in Japan. At fancier tempura specialty establishments, a full tempura set can cost as much as 5,000 JPY. Of course, more modestly priced sets at restaurants can range from 600 to 2,000 JPY.

天丼 Tendon, which are rice bowls topped with tempura and sauce, meanwhile, can be had reasonably in the range of 500 to 800 JPY even at chain restaurants, and even 300 JPY at convenience stores. Those looking to sample their tempura pieces individually are in luck, as you can affordably buy them from the deli section of department stores and supermarkets from 100 to 500 JPY per piece!

A serving of tendon, a rice bowl topped with tempura.

Types of tempura

The great thing about tempura is that, well, you can technically make a tempura version of any desired food if you try hard enough. However, there are some classic ingredients used that you’ll see served up at tempura restaurants around Japan. A big reason to try as many tempura places in Japan as possible is there are quite a few popular types that aren’t as common in other countries. Here’s some of our recommended tempura!

エビ ebi (shrimp) tempura: shrimp is one of the most popular ingredients for tempura due to its meaty texture and delicious flavor.

A serving of shrimp tempura.

かき揚げ kakiage tempura: a type of tempura made from a mixture of thinly sliced vegetables, such as onions and carrots, and seafood like shrimp or scallops.

なす nasu (eggplant) tempura: eggplant is another popular vegetable for tempura due to its mild flavor and soft texture.

A serving of eggplant tempura.

かぼちゃ kabocha (pumpkin) tempura: Kabocha is a Japanese variety of pumpkin that is slightly sweeter and denser than other pumpkins. It makes for a delicious and unique tempura dish.

ししとう shishito tempura: shishito peppers are small, thin-skinned peppers that are mild in heat and often used for tempura.

Shishito peppers bring a pleasant spice to tempura meals.

れんこん renkon (lotus root) tempura: lotus root is a root vegetable that is popular in Japanese cuisine. It has a unique texture that makes it perfect for tempura.

さつまいも satsumaimo (sweet potato): a purplish Japanese sweet potato that has a starchy texture but surprisingly sweet flavor to find in tempura.

A serving of sweet potato tempura.

しそ shiso (perilla): a popular, almost minty leaf that gives tempura an even more refreshing finish.

Tips for enjoying tempura

When tempura is eaten on its own, it is typically enjoyed in a set meal with rice, miso soup, and pickles, and in that case is complemented by salt or a special dipping sauce called 天つゆ tentsuyu. Tentsuyu is a mild but savory dipping sauce that really helps bring out the flavor of tempura ingredients.

Dip your tempura into tentsuyu to give it a savory and refreshing touch.

Tempura is definitely a must-try when visiting Japan. Because such a wide variety of ingredients, including shrimp, squid, vegetables, and even cheese can be tempura, it’s a crowd-pleasing food with a dish for almost anybody!