Tempura and Its History in Japan: It Is Actually an Import!

Typical Japanese Cuisine Tempura Is Actually an Import!

Recently, there has been an increase in overseas interest in Japanese culture.  Not to mention new Japanese culture such as Anime and Manga, interest has also been focused on Japanese cuisine.  Along with sushi, tempura is popular overseas as typical Japanese cuisine.

The History of Tempura

But surprisingly, in actuality, tempura was originally a Western dish.  As is known from the myth that Tokugawa Ieyasu died from eating sea bream tempura, which was a novelty at that time, tempura arrived in Japan from the West at the end of the Warring States period.  During the Warring States period (1482 to 1558), large numbers of missionaries came from Southern Europe to Japan bringing with them their Western culture.  One of these cultural items was tempura made by frying food in oil.

There are various theories on the origin of the word tempura.  Some say that the word is a corruption of the Portuguese word “tempero” (seasoning) or the Spanish word “templo” (temple) while others say that the word is related to the Spanish or Portuguese word “tempora.”

In his book “Taberu Nihon-shi” (A History of Japanese Diet, published by Shibata Shoten), Kiyoyuki Higuchi states that the word tempora is the name of a Christian festival held on Fridays.  Higuchi writes that Fridays were a day of purification where the custom was to abstain from eating the flesh of beasts and partake only of sea food.  On the day of tempora, the believers would eat fish that had been floured and fried in oil.  The Japanese who saw this called it temporasu cooking.  It is said that during the Edo period, it came to be simply called tempura.

There is also another explanation that Santo Kyoden, an author of popular stories in the Edo period, was the godfather of tempura.

A man by the name of Risuke arriving in Edo after eloping from Osaka frequented the home of Kyoden.  The man had the idea of opening up a street stall in Edo that sold fried fish.  Kyoden who heard this named the food 天麩羅 (tempura) in order to help sell the fried food.  “Risuke, you are a 天竺浪人(Tenjiku-ronin; a vagabond or jobless man with no fixed address).  So, this is a business that a 天竺浪人 who came to Edo without any definite purpose is going to start.  And the kanji 麩 means flour and 羅 means thin fabric,” said Kyoden, writing these kanji characters on the signboard for the street stall.

Tempura Became Popular only in the 19th Century

Tempura spread among the populace at the close of the Edo period (1603-1867).  Rather than being a formal, sit-down meal, tempura developed as a stand-up meal where the food was quickly deep-fried on a skewer right before one’s eyes and eaten by cramming the food in one’s mouth.  In those days, deep-fried sea food was primarily called tempura.

Tempura that had been imported from the West thus became popular throughout Japan.  Considering that this tempura has now been reverse exported to the world as Japanese cuisine, we can say that tempura has a very interesting history.

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