11 July 2024

If you have been reading this column, you would have sensed that this writing person is obsessed with back stories. I find it inconceivable, in any sense, to understand things as they are without knowing how they came about. Foods, like all things, have their own journeys, and what appeared to be originally from one place might turn out to be from somewhere totally different.

We were touring the Iberian Peninsula which is the area of Spain, Portugal, and the northern parts of Morocco some years back. The region was absolutely stunning, and in Madrid we found local desserts that look like our ‘golden desserts’ or the yolk-based desserts such as Foi Thong, Thong Yip – egg floss and egg basket, if I have to translate them. I know that we got those recipes since the time of King Narai via a Portuguese descendant, but never expected it to be still alive and vibrant in its own native regions. I was thrilled and afterward always on a search for more bites that give me such a wonderful insight into all things delicious in the world.

 

But among all things, nothing prepared me for a size of the surprise that took me when I learnt about ‘peixinhos da horta’ which, in essence, is a Portuguese invention that later became known as ‘Tempura’ — the dish that has a stronger relation to Japan than to its real origin. Story has it that ‘peixinhos da horta’ means ‘little fishes from the garden’ – the traditional all-veggie dish created to supply comfort and sustenance during their ‘Ember Days’ or fasting days according to the Christian churches. The Ember Days — called ‘Quatuor anni Tempora’ — are the scheduled times when people skip meats, hence this dish that provides them with a fulfilling and crunching joy. This is a tradition that harks back as old as the Christianity itself.

And amazingly, the peixinhos da horta is still being actively served today in Portugal. We were in Lisbon the past October and ordered one. The plate is traditionally made from long green beans, the batter slightly thicker and softer, and the condiment is the creamy and a bit tangy tartar sauce. This is as traditional as it gets. It seems that time stands still for this dish. Nothing has changed since the Age of Discovery or during the 15th Century.

But the Portuguese went around the globe during those days. Somehow obviously their Ember Days must have fallen on the day they landed in Japan, and the new roots of their ‘peixinhos da horta’ took place, and the new name ‘tempura’ was adopted.

 

In Japan, the back story of ‘Tempura’ is a common knowledge. It is something tempura chefs know very well, and take on that history with pride. They even made a delicacy out of it. In Japan and in Bangkok, tempura can be a simple fare, a part of a Japanese meal. But it can also be an elevated experience where masters of tempura freshly fry each bite and immediately place it in front of you to demonstrate its preciousness. Now, with the back story and its long journey, I wish you look at tempura with new lights.

Hope you enjoy our video.

By : Ohhappybear