Difficult dish made easy at cook-your-own tempura hallIn preparing tempura, or Japanese deep-fried seafood and vegetables, many things can go wrong. Which explains why tempura may be served almost everywhere in the world yet even the most seasoned diners have a hard time picking the best tempura restaurant. When well-executed, a piece of tempura can taste heavenly, but most are nothing but a greasy glob and, worse, leave behind high calories and guilty feelings. At home, tempura can easily become a disaster, so unless you’ve mastered the tricks of the trade, don’t even bother to try.
The archetypal Japanese dish, whose origin dates back to a 16th-century Portuguese tradition adapted for classic Japanese ingredients, requires expert handling at every step. Extra-fresh ingredients must be properly prepared; they must retain their moisture while staying free of water droplets. This alone requires hours of labor. In making the batter, the mysterious ratio of flour to eggs and other ingredients in the mixture hides a make-or-break secret, whose formula most chefs would never share or reveal. The general rule is to use icy cold water, or even beer, to make the fritter extra-crispy, but exactly how much is added and when can result in odd-looking and tasting tempura; otherwise, in reality, cooking the dish can cause bad burns to the body. Then, there is the temperature issue, as well as mixing just the right amount of mirin, sweet rice wine, into the soy sauce-based dipping sauce. The tempura saga continues.
So how it is possible, theoretically, to make your own tempura at the table and enjoy the taste of it at the same time at Jukchon (Takemura in Japanese) intrigued me, before my first visit to its branch in southern Seoul. Jukchon, which opened three years ago, has remained little known in the bustling commercial blocks near Hyundai Department Store in Apgujeong-dong, while the eight-year-old Jukchon (02-3143-0084) near Hongik University, northwest of Seoul, is always busy with self-cooking tempura fans who don’t mind sitting on tatami floors. Decorated with a bamboo theme (Jukchon means “bamboo village”), the newer Jukchon has regular tables and has a more private feel to its small dining hall on the third floor of a nondescript building.
The idea behind the business, according to the owner, comes from tempura restaurants in Japan’s Kyushu region, which she adapted to suit Korean diners.
For our order of the popular assorted tempura set (27,000 won, or $24, per person plus 10 percent VAT), a Japanese steel pot of oil was heated in a gas pit mounted on the table, and small bamboo trays covered with paper were placed in front of each diner. An extremely courteous Korean waitress, who never stops smiling and bowing Japanese-style, provided four spoonfuls of salt, in place of the usual soy sauce-based dipping sauce. They were flavored with green tea, paprika, black pepper and curry, and the vibrant colors added a festive mood. She explained that the oil was very hot, so the pot must be covered with napkins to avoid splashes.
Here, cooking tempura at the table is indeed made amazingly easy. A dramatically decorated plate of assorted ingredients displayed 19 varieties of fresh items ― from lobster bites through flower-shaped sweet potatoes to the wholesome shisamo fish (smelt) ― prepared in bite-size pieces and skewered with long, thin bamboo sticks. The waitress showed us how to dip the skewer into a cold batter in a bamboo container. The batter was light green in color, as it is Jukchon’s special recipe and contains healthy green tea. Green tea is not only said to be an antioxidant but also helps digestion.
She pointed at a small clock and a menu board that listed the cooking order and time for each of the 19 items to be deep-fried. Most seafood, such as lobster, shark and prawn, for example, are cooked for three minutes; vegetables such as ginkgo nuts and squash, for two minutes, and wedge-cut apples for dessert, just 30 seconds. “The ingredients are designed to be cooked in this order to maintain the right temperature in the oil,” the owner explained. I see.
While waiting for the oil to heat, we were served potato porridge and egg custard, which were light and tasty and very Japanese.
Naturally, I became concerned about the type of oil used in the cooking. “It’s soybean oil, and we discard the oil after one-time use. We never reuse the oil,” the owner assured us.
The little morsels ― be they juicy prawn, chewy abalone, toothy burdock root or crispy green bell pepper ― out of the pot were coated in greenish batter, which was thin, light and crispy. After a few bites, one of our tablemates said the skin inside the roof of his palate had fallen off. The tempura is that hot, so take time in eating those scrumptious bites, whether they are dipped in red, yellow, gray or green salt. To accompany the tasty tempura and hearty conversation, a bottle of nicely chilled Chilean Chardonnay, the 2004 Carmen (30,000 won), lasted to the end of the meal.
Additional ingredients can be ordered for 2,000 or 3,000 won, but after 19 morsels followed by sweet rice steamed in a small bamboo barrel and a bowl of Japanese somen (thin noodles) at the end of the meal, we were all glutted, and went on to boast about our great tempura experience in Seoul.
English: Spoken, not on the menu.
Tel.: (02) 3444-4209
Location: 578-3 Sinsa-dong; Apgujeong subway station, line No. 3, exit 4. Walk past Burger King about 50 meters.
Hours: 5-11 p.m. daily except for Sundays.
Parking: Paid parking nearby
Dress code: Smart casual
by Ines Cho