If you read online about the origins of the Japanese tempura cooking style, you will discover that it was introduced to Japan by Portuguese missionaries who possibly adapted it from Indian pakora in their colony of Goa. The word comes from the Latin tempora or ‘times’, which was used to refer to the Christian fast days on which meat could not be eaten and fish was a popular substitute. However, we in Scotland know that it is simply an excuse to deep-fry things in batter and that no further justification is needed. If they can then be dipped in soy sauce, so much the better.
I have been experimenting recently with a number of strongly-flavoured shoots from the carrot family, including hogweed (Heracleum sphondylium), sweet cicely (Myrrhis odorata) and lovage (Levisticum officinale), and one from the closely related aralia family – udo (Aralia cordata). In all the carrot relatives it is the young leaf stems that are eaten, preferably before the leaf itself has properly unfurled. Lovage is particularly strongly flavoured and is usually used as a herb, but it can be made milder by blanching it – excluding light from the growing stems so that they come up pale and somewhat chastened. Clay forcing pots are traditionally used for this but I find that an upturned bin works just as well (it needs to be large as lovage is quite a size).
With the udo on the other hand it is usually the pith – the flesh inside the central stems – that is used: the resinous skin is peeled or sliced off. In this case, however, I wanted to find a use for the tips of the shoots that are difficult to peel and include the young leaves. I thought that tempura might be a good way of harmonising all these strong flavours.
For my tempura batter I used plain wheat flour with a little corn flour, an egg and chilled water. I mixed it briefly so as to keep it light and fluffy. The stems were all cut up into bite-sized lengths, then coated in the batter and deep fried. You get lots of little bits of batter left in the oil once you take the large pieces out: it is good to get these out if you can or they will spoil your oil.
The verdict? I loved it! The strong flavours were all still there but tempered by the cooking and the mild batter and by the competition with the soy sauce. This is definitely a dish that I will be making again.