Whether it’s fish and chips after a day on the beach, calamares fritos at a Spanish bar or Indian pakora with an ice-cold Tiger beer at a festival, deep fried food is something that always tastes better outdoors and when the weather is hot.
In Greece recently I was staying with friends who, in late June, were already struggling to keep up with their courgette glut, so for lunch one day we decided to make kolokithokeftedes, the traditional Greek courgette fritters. Courgettes are coarsely grated, salted and then squeezed to remove as much water as possible, before being mixed with onion, garlic, feta, egg, breadcrumbs, dill and mint. Traditionally shaped into patties and shallow fried, they can be a little heavy, so my host decided to put loose spoonfuls of the mixture into deep boiling oil so that the shards of onion and courgette that made their way free of the mass became crispy and a deep, caramelised brown. They came out looking like tiny deep-fried, soft-shelled crabs. Served with a bowl of cold, garlicky tzatziki, six of us devoured about forty of them in quick succession.
In Japan, of course, it is tempura that fulfils this role. It is no surprise to learn that the technique of deep frying batter-coated fish and vegetables was brought to Nagasaki by the Portugese in the 16th century. Peixinhos da horta is believed to be the original dish that inspired a way of cooking that we now primarily associate with Japanese cuisine. These ‘little garden fishes’ are green string beans, coated in batter and deep fried, and were eaten in Portugal during Lent, when meat was off the menu. The Japanese took this idea and ran with it, and now tempura describes the method of cooking any fish, meat or vegetable in this way.
One of our favourite places to eat when in London is Koya Bar, a tiny Japanese restaurant in Soho, where fast-cooked food is prepared in front of you behind a long seating counter. While the queue to get a table can sometimes seem intimidating, the turnaround is so fast that waiting in line for 30 minutes is a small price to pay for food this delicious. It is the most authentic Japanese eating experience we have had outside of Japan. Although they specialise in udon noodles, there is always a blackboard of seasonal specials on offer and, of these, it is the kakiage tempura that we order without fail whenever we go. Kakiage tempura differs from regular tempura in that it is a mixture of sliced vegetables (sometimes combined with fish) in batter rather than the individual pieces of fish, crustacean and vegetables that we are more familiar with. Seasonality is key and, at Koya, they can be made of anything from wild carrot with carrot tops to broad beans and peas or squid and chrysanthemum.
We are now in the midst of our courgette glut and looking for new ways to use them as often as possible, while our sweetcorn is challenging us to eat it quicker than it becomes starchy. I have grown ‘Double Red’ this year, a new variety with seed from The Real Seed Catalogue, who sell some of the most interesting vegetable varieties in the country. The plants are highly decorative with stems and husks stained a deep purple-red and cobs of dark burgundy, almost black, kernels, which are almost too beautiful to eat. They have made a good partner to our ornamental red and tan amaranth this year. We have also just lifted all of our onions and so the combination of vegetables here reflects what is best to eat at this very moment. I could also have used green beans, carrots and beetroot or, later in the season, pumpkin, sweet potato, mushrooms, celeriac, kale or salsify. You can also add any herbs that you like to the mix. Here I have used the traditional purple shiso (Perilla frutescens var. crispa), which is used to impart the pink colour to umeboshi plums. It has a flavour somewhere between aniseed and basil. Dipped into batter and fried at the end of cooking the leaves also make a beautiful garnish.
Although there is a plethora of recipes for tempura batter using either whole eggs or whisked egg whites, I have found that the simplest batter of just flour and water makes the crispest coating. However, there are a few golden rules to ensure that your tempura turns out as well as possible. Firstly, all of the vegetables must be cut to a size where they will cook in the same time. It is traditional for the vegetables to be coarsely julienned or grated. Secondly, get your oil hot enough to cook before you make the batter. It should be between 170°and 180°C. Thirdly, the batter should be as cold as possible, and must not be over-mixed or whisked which stretches the gluten and makes it tough and chewy. Chopsticks are used traditionally and it should have lumps of flour in it. Fourthly, before placing the batter-coated vegetables in the oil, allow as much batter to drain from them as possible. This ensures the lightest coating and avoids a doughy centre. Fifthly, only cook a couple of spoonfuls at a time, so as not to crowd the pan and lower the temperature of the oil. Sixthly, use a small wire strainer or slotted spoon to remove any overcooked bits of batter from the oil between batches to avoid them flavouring the oil and attaching to the next lot of fritters. And finally, do not be tempted to ‘worry’ the fritters in the oil, be patient and leave them be until they are ready to turn, or the batter will not have cooked and they will fall apart.
It is customary to serve tempura with a simple dipping sauce of dashi, soy sauce and mirin, but the lemon and miso sauce here, adapted from a recipe by Elizabeth Andoh from her excellent book of Japanese home cooking, Kansha, complements the richness of the fried fritters perfectly.
350g courgette, coarsely julienned or grated
2 large sweetcorn cobs, shucked
1 medium red onion, about 175g
8 large and 6 small shiso leaves
Sunflower or rapeseed oil
175ml iced sparkling water
65g self raising flour
65g cornflour, plus 1 tablespoon more
A few ice cubes, 4 to 6
3 tablespoons white miso
3 tablespoons lemon juice
Finely grated zest of half a lemon
1 tablespoon maple syrup or lightly flavoured honey
1 tablespoon mirin or sake
Makes about 12, enough for 6 people
Put the courgette into a sieve and sprinkle lightly with sea salt. Use your hands to mix the salt in well and then leave to drain over a bowl for 20 to 30 minutes.
To make the dipping sauce, put the miso and lemon juice in a small bowl and stir well. Add the maple syrup or honey and mirin and stir well again. Add the lemon zest and stir again. Transfer to a serving bowl.
Using a very sharp knife shave the corn kernels from the cobs over a bowl. Slice the onion in half down the centre and then cut each half across the grain into crescents the thickness of a coin. Separate the onion crescents and add to the bowl of corn.
Take small handfuls of the salted courgette and squeeze hard to remove as much water as possible. Add to the bowl of corn and onion. Cut the eight large perilla leaves into fine ribbons and add to the bowl. Using your hands, mix all of the vegetables and herbs together until the courgette strands are separated and all is well combined. Sprinkle over the one tablespoon of cornflour and toss with your hands again until everything is lightly coated. This helps the vegetables to stick together when fried.
Pour the oil into a medium-sized (25cm), deep-sided frying pan to a depth of about 2cm. Put over a medium heat until the surface begins to shimmer. Turn the heat down a little and make the batter. Put most of the iced water and some ice cubes into a bowl. Sift the two flours onto the water and then quickly mix together. The batter should be the consistency of single cream and just coat your finger. If it is too thick add more iced water. Turn the heat up under the oil and, when just smoking, test the temperature with a few drops of batter. It should sink and then immediately rise to the surface and puff up.
Pour two thirds of the batter over the vegetables and mix quickly until everything is lightly coated. Add a little more if you think it needs it. However, you may not need to use it all. The vegetables should not be swimming in batter. Using a tablespoon and a fork, take a scant tablespoonful of the vegetable mixture and hold it above the bowl, allowing most of the batter to run off. Then slowly place the vegetables into the hot oil, using the fork to quickly spread them out so that you have a thin fritter about 8cm in diameter. Now wait 30 seconds for the underside of the fritter to cook, before using two forks – or chopsticks – to carefully turn the fritter over. Cook for another 30 seconds until the other side is cooked and lightly coloured. In a medium-sized pan you should aim to cook no more than two fritters at a time, always allowing the oil to return to temperature before frying the next batch.
Remove the fritters from the oil with chopsticks or a slotted spoon, and hold them above the pan to allow as much oil to drain from them as possible, before transferring to a hot plate lined with absorbent paper. You can now either choose to serve them as they come from the pan or put the plate into an oven heated to 100°C to keep warm, while you cook the rest of the mixture.
When all of the mixture is cooked transfer the fritters to a clean plate. Quickly dip the remaining shiso leaves in the batter and fry until crisp. A matter of seconds. Remove and drain quickly on absorbent paper, then use to decorate the plate of fritters. Serve immediately with the dipping sauce.