I like making tempura using the flour-egg-panko coating — dredge in flour, dip in egg, roll in panko then fry. Sam prefers the camaron rebosado way — dip in seasoned starch mixed with iced water then fry. It’s simpler and there are less bowls to wash. She’s like that. She doesn’t like complicating things. So, when we go to the grocery, she keeps her eyes open for anything that can make her life less complicated.
When Sam saw a box of tempura batter mix and wanted to buy it, I wondered what for. It’s just starch, really, and we always have starch in the kitchen. Then, I realized how she always has to ask which jar has the starch, where the flour is, etcetera, because most of the jars in the kitchen are not labeled. I’m disorganized like that but I know exactly what each jar contains. Of course, it’s confusing for everyone else. The jars of powdered sugar and starch look exactly the same, powdered sugar and starch look alike, so… you get the picture. I understood the attraction of the box of tempura batter mix for Sam.
So, we bought the box of tempura batter mix. The thing is, Sam did not use it to make tempura. She used half of the contents of the box to make onion rings once then forgot all about the rest. And the box lay forgotten inside some cabinet. Until a couple of days ago when I unearthed it. I checked the content, it still looked okay so I used it.
I added salt, chili flakes, and dried tarragon and parsley to the powder, poured in iced water, dipped strips of bangus back fillets in the mixture and started frying. The tempura batter mix worked exactly the way starch does. Like I thought, it is just starch. It’s just the labeling, with its subliminal message that it will magically make the buyer a wiz at tempura making, that makes it more expensive than ordinary starch. I just made a mental note to label all the jars in the kitchen so that Sam won’t be tempted to buy things like the box of tempura batter mix again.
In short, you don’t really need a tempura batter mix. Plain starch is fine. Will flour do? Yes but a flour coating does not stay crisp as long as starch coating does. And what starch is best for making tempura? Corn, potato and tapioca (cassava) starch all work. Corn starch is the most widely available and the least expensive. Personally, I like tapioca starch best because the coating stays crisp long after the tempura has cooled to room temperature.
To make good tempura:
1. Season the fish, seafood or vegetable first;
2. Keep the pieces of fish, seafood or vegetable small enough so that it cooks within a minute or two — few things are more disastrous than a very dark coating and a raw filling;
3. Season the starch mixture as well (remember the principle of layering flavors) — adding herbs does wonders;
4. Make sure that you use iced water (ice cold water plus small pieces of ice);
5. The starch mixture should have the consistency of pancake batter — thin and pourable but not too watery;
6. When the ice pieces melt and the starch mixture thins down, add more starch.
7. Use a generous amount of hot oil to make sure that battered fish or seafood or vegetable floats in the oil;
8. Cook only a few pieces at a time so as not to overcrowd the pan — overcrowding will make the pieces stick to one another and, worse, cause the temperature of the oil to drop which will make the tempura soggy and greasy; and
9. Drain the cooked tempura on a stainer or on a stack of paper towels to remove excess oil before serving.