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Making Time and Tempura

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The farm stand closed on Sunday and I sliced up the last of it to be fried as tempura, a fitting eulogy for the season. I pulled the stainless bowl out of the freezer and mixed a light batter, keeping it cold with ice water. The oil was heating on the stove and I waited for it to come to temperature, an anticipation drawing me again into the awareness of time. I glanced down at my watch, following the second hand around the dial as it pulled my mind away from the present.

At the beach, my complete obliviousness to the passing of time had led me to a sudden obsession with the wristwatch. I had never worn one regularly, and perhaps it showed. Browsing online in that fit of research that invariably precedes these kind of purchases, I examined the varieties: mechanical, digital, quartz, each one varying on how they construct the idea of time. The latest digital models are synchronized to a global standard, the Temps Atomique International, approaching the Newtonian ideal of something absolute. Our civilizing impulses draw us towards the idea of this universal truth, but the concept of time itself is always in flux. Einstein’s theories of relativity challenged time as a universal constant. The latest measurements of time on the quantum scale suggest that it doesn’t even exist. Absolute time is useful for running airports, but has little to do with the real experience of life, how fleeting those perfect moments on the beach, how long the oil seemed to be taking. Like the mechanical watch, our memories are imperfect timekeepers, a stuttering apparatus, losing or gaining seconds each day. Even the most accurate mechanical watches are bested by their battery-powered counterparts which have made them increasingly uncommon, but there is a kind of beauty to their design, if only for their imperfection. Realizing the decision had already been made, I bought a simple mechanical Seiko on a metal bracelet which I left on night and day, in the ocean, the shower, even as I slept.

The oil danced in the pan, little trails forming like the wind moving through the sand from an aerial view, getting there, but not quite ready. Crickets chimed rhythmically in the dune grass and I remembered the piano I used to play, and the strange electric metronome that sat on top of it. From my days of playing piano, I could never get past the rests, those strange symbols on musical notation denoting not sound but silence. I would count them out in my head, turning the metronome on to get the hang of it. “Just play,” the teacher interrupted. The greatest jazz musicians were ones who created their own sense of time, exploring the relationship between sound and silence. This sense of anticipation brought on by silence was what gave music it its tension with each note that arrived like Thelonious Monk, “always late, always on time.”

I had found myself sitting at a clean pine counter top, on a weekend’s visit to New York, watching a tempura master present a plate of fried shrimp, mushroom, and shiso leaf, as always, to the tune of Kind of Blue. He worked like a musician, keeping the various components in rhythm, slicing a few vegetables, mixing the batter with ice water, checking the oil. He had internalized his own metrics, measuring the oil’s temperature by the way it moved, the length of the frying by the size of the bubbles. The pace of music is too quick to allow for measurement. Likewise, the cook had no time to check the clock, the metronome, the crickets, the faint sound of a beating mechanical watch. Our dinner came together at this musical pace, weighted against the swelling tide of hunger that made those careful minutes seem like hours. A great cook, he proved, was one who doesn’t rely on measurements, but rather his own sense of rhythm.

I tossed in a few drops of the batter that fell through the oil and sprang back at attention. Ready to go.

Tempura

3 cups grapeseed oil
2 tablespoons sesame oil

1 egg yolk
1 cup flour
1 cup ice water

An array of vegetables or shrimp in bite-sized pieces
Flour, for dusting

First, prepare your workspace. Set out a plate covered in flour for dredging next to your platter of bite-sized vegetables, near the stove. Fill a large mixing bowl with ice and water and place another, slightly smaller mixing bowl over it, and set this next to your flour and vegetables. Next to the stove, lay out some paper towels under a wire mesh rack, which will keep the tempura crispy after frying.

In a small saucepan, heat oils over medium-high heat until they reach 340º F. If you don’t have a thermometer, you can test the temperature of the oil by dropping in a small bit of batter—if the batter only sinks halfway and floats to the surface quickly, it’s right.

Meanwhile, in the top mixing bowl that you prepared, add the egg yolk and whisk with chopsticks. Add the flour and whisk to combine. When you’re ready to fry, add the ice water and stir the mixture with chopsticks only a few strokes—the batter should be very, very lumpy.

Fry in batches of only a few pieces at a time, so as not to crowd the pan—first, lightly dredge each piece in flour, then quickly dunk and coat with the tempura batter, and drop into the hot oil. Fry each batch for about two minutes and then scoop each piece out with a metal strainer, draining the oil well, and place on the wire rack to cool. Keep in mind that tempura should be a very light color, so do not wait for the batter to brown before removing the pieces or they will be overdone. Once the frying is done, serve the tempura with a dish of sea salt to sprinkle over each piece. Strain oil of solid particles and reserve for future use.

Jeffrey Ozawa is a writer and cook living in Chicago. His blog, Gorumando, explores life’s pleasures through food.

(Photo: Jaimie Lewis of Machins Choses)

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