If you’re looking for a country that has some truly unique cultural offerings, then you can’t really go wrong with the island nation of Japan. I have always been a big fan of most things Japanese – I even speak the language, but if you want to talk about love, I am a deep admirer of a wide variety of Japanese dishes. Nihon ryori, or Japanese cuisine, is a truly diverse experience that I believe everyone should get to know.
Japanese cooking runs the gamut of direct and indirect influences – there’s the southeast Asian influence that resulted in the delectable Japanese curry, and there is the multitude of seafood-based dishes that were created as a direct result of the country being surrounded by water. One of my favorite foods from this country is chicken tempura, which is a chicken tender batter recipe that has very interesting origins.
Where Does Tempura Come From
Believe it or not, tempura has a European origin. During the 16th century, three Portuguese sailors found themselves on the island of Japan when their Chinese ship ran aground there.
At first, these “southern barbarians“, were merely tolerated, but as time passed, these sailors were the vanguard of a trading relationship that would last for the next century. During this time, many dishes were shared between the two cultures, and the predecessor of tempura, which is a dish called peixinhos da horta, was shared and has since become a national delight.
Peixinhos da horta was a simple fried dish of green beans slathered in a crunchy batter, and the dish was traditionally consumed by the Portuguese during lent as something that could be eaten as a meat substitute. This period of fasting was dubbed tempora, which is Latin, and the Japanese word tempura can trace its roots to this Christian tradition.
In Japan, tempura-ya, or restaurants that specialize in tempura, are almost as ubiquitous as ramen joints or ramen-ya. Even in places that don’t specialize specifically in the fried dish, you’ll find at least one option for tempura on the menu. In most cases, the tempura that’s served is either comprised of vegetables or seafood, but tempura chicken is definitely a very popular dish throughout the island nation.
This dish is popular perhaps due to its crunchiness – most tempura is served atop a bed of rice, and the combination of the two food textures is as close to magic as a dish can get. When you couple this texture with the flavor of tempura chicken tenders, then you get a truly delicious and uniquely Japanese experience that I’d recommend to anyone.
What is Chicken Tempura?
Chicken tempura is a version of the tempura recipe that offers some unique texture and flavor attributes. The first thing that sets this dish apart from other forms of tempura is that the chicken provides a more tender experience than you’d expect with either the vegetable or seafood varieties. In most situations, either white meat from the breast or dark meat from the thighs are used to craft this unique meal, and if you’re going to be visiting Japan in the near future, two of the places where this dish is particularly popular are Oita and Kyushu.
In these regions of the country, tempura chicken is often referred to as toriten, which combines the Japanese word for bird (or chicken) tori, with the ten from tempura. To craft the batter, most people simply combine cold water with soft wheat flour and seasoning, and to cook each delicious tender, you’ll only need to fry them for a few minutes, which makes tempura chicken a very convenient and quick meal.
In most situations, the dish is served atop of rice or with karashi mustard sauce, which is a delicious dipping sauce for the dish that I’ll provide the recipe for later on. In any situation, if you’re looking for a crunchy meal with lots of flavors, you really can’t go wrong with tempura chicken.
Chicken Tempura Roll
A chicken tempura roll combines the crunchy goodness of toriten with the bite-sized delectability of sushi. While foods like torisashi have become very well-favored in Japan, many residents still prefer for their chicken to be cooked thoroughly, and the textures really provide a unique experience.
Here’s a chicken tempura recipe that forms the chicken into sushi-like rolls that have become one of my favorites. It’s important to understand that there are a few steps to this recipe because you’ll first need to craft the tempura chicken, but in my opinion, the results are spectacular and well worth the effort.
What you’ll need for these rolls:
- One pound of chicken breasts
- A large egg
- A cup of club soda
- Two quarts of oil
- One and a half cups of cornstarch
- Two cups of cake flour
- One teaspoon of salt
- Two cups of sushi rice
- One-half cup of rice vinegar
- One-third of a cup of thawed orange juice concentrate
- One tablespoon of reduced-sodium soy sauce
- Three green onions, sliced thinly
- A fourth of a cup of sugar
- A quarter of a teaspoon of crushed red pepper
- A quarter teaspoon of sesame oil
- A bamboo sushi mat
To start, the first thing you’ll want to do is cook the rice in a rice cooker or on the stovetop. While this is happening, it’s time to make the chicken. The first thing that you’ll need to do with the chicken is to slice it very thinly so that they are ideal for sushi-style rolls and will cook quickly.
Next, it’s time to make the tempura batter. First, using cake flour seems to make a near perfect tempura batter, so mix the eggs with the salt and the club soda using a pair of chopsticks. Next, add your flour gradually and carefully – lumps are inevitable, but just be careful to ensure that the batter remains nice and airy.
When you’re finished mixing, the batter will cling a bit to your chopsticks, which means that it has the right consistency. Using cornstarch, dust the chicken, which will help them crisp when you’re frying the slices, and add them to the batter.
For this part, I typically use chopsticks to make sure each piece of chicken is very well coated. Next, using the chopsticks, grab each piece of chicken and place, not drop, it in the batter and swirl it around a bit to ensure that the batter is sealed on the chicken’s surface. Repeat with each piece of chicken.
The tempura chicken will take about five minutes to cook through, and when they are done, transfer them to a plate lined with paper towels to dry.
By now, your rice should be done cooking, so remove it from the heat and let stand for about 15 minutes. In a smaller bowl, combine the vinegar, sugar, and salt. Next, mix these ingredients until they are all dissolved. Move the rice to a large bowl and sprinkle around 1/3 of the vinegar mixture on top and stir until the rice is cooled and well-coated.
Combine the cooked tempura chicken with the orange juice concentrate, ginger, soy sauce, red pepper flakes, and oil. Mix it around until the tempura chicken is well coated.
Now it’s time to start the sushi preparation stages of this recipe. Cover your sushi mat with plastic wrap and moisten your hands with a little vinegar. Press the rice onto the plastic wrap in as even of a layer as possible. In the center of the mat, add in about a quarter of the coated chicken tempura mixture, the sliced green onions, and the red pepper strips.
Grab the ends of the mat and roll tightly away from your body until you’ve created a tightly-packed log. Slice this log into one and a half-inch slices and serve with Karashi mustard sauce.
Karashi Mustard Sauce Recipe
Thought I’d left you high and dry for the sauce, huh? Karashi mustard sauce is a very famous traditional dipping sauce that the Japanese consume with their tempura chicken, and it serves as a great counterpoint for these sushi-like rolls.
Here’s how to make the sauce:
- Two tablespoons of low-sodium soy sauce
- Two tablespoons of sake
- One tablespoon of Dijon or brown mustard
- A quarter teaspoon of house rayu sauce with togarashi
Combine all of the ingredients in a bowl and serve with your tempura chicken or tempura chicken rolls. Just remember, the combination of the house rayu and Dijon can make for a very spicy sauce, so reduce these ingredients if you want a milder mix.
Tempura Chicken Tenders
If you don’t want to make up a sushi-style chicken tender recipe, traditional tempura chicken is also a great option. This batter for chicken strips recipe is slightly different than the one I outlined for the roll recipe and is much more aligned with the original form of the dish.
Here’s what you’ll need for this dish:
- Two pounds of pre-cut chicken tenders
- Two cups of flour – cake flour works well
- One and a half teaspoons of salt
- Two cups of cold water
- Three tablespoons of vinegar
- One and a half teaspoons of baking soda
- One and a half cups of cornstarch
Before you start battering, I always suggest sprinkling each chicken tender with cornstarch because this makes for very crispy tempura chicken. Next, in a large-sized bowl, combine the flour, water, and salt so that they form the start of your tempura batter.
In a second bowl, you’ll want to mix the vinegar and baking soda so that they start to create a very foamy mixture. Combine these two mixtures into a bowl and let sit for a few minutes.
Next, using a large frying pan or skillet, pour in the oil until it about two inches deep. Heat the oil until it’s very hot – around 350 degrees Fahrenheit or so. Using a pair of cooking chopsticks, take each pre-cut tender and coat it in your vinegar and flour mixture until it’s fully coated. With the same chopsticks, transfer the chicken from the mix into the oil. When you’re doing this, it’s a good idea to “swirl” the chicken a bit in the oil so that a seal is formed on each tender – this prevents the chicken from sticking to the bottom of the pan during the frying process.
Fry your tenders for about five minutes in relatively small batches and transfer each cooked tender to a paper towel-lined plate to drain. Serve on top of rice or with tonkatsu sauce, tentsuyu sauce, or karashi mustard for dipping.
Some Excellent Tempura Pairings
Now, I know I mentioned serving this chicken dish with rice or just with sauce, but there’s a wide array of delicious pairings that I also suggest that you consider. This form of chicken-based tempura pairs with its share of local Japanese sides, but there are a wide array of Asian and non-Asian sides that it goes well with as well. Let’s take a look at a few:
Korean Jap Chae
This is a type of vermicelli glass noodle that goes excellently with chopped veggies and a plethora of meat cuts, so why wouldn’t you try it with tempura chicken?
To pair these two together, you just have to stir fry up your choice of veggies, mix them up with the jap chae, toss with various flavorings like soy sauce, sugar, and sesame oil, and toss your chicken on top. This is one of those pairings that combines crunchy, savory foods with sweeter, softer textured foods. In my mind, this is a match made in heaven.
Garlic Mashed Potatoes
This is another food that goes well with this type of tempura. If you want to try this, it’s just a matter of using the potatoes as a side dish, which makes this a fairly easy-to-make pairing. A spicier dip seems to work best with this pairing, so karashi might just be the way to go.
Is Tempura Chicken Good for You?
Trust me, I know how it is always to wonder how a type of food is going to affect the waistline, so it’s not beyond the pale to wonder about the caloric value of this dish. First things first: tempura chicken is definitely a fried food, so if your doctor suggests that you avoid these kinds of dishes, this might not be the best meal item for you. Having said that, there are ways to make your tempura chicken a healthier meal.
For example, frying your oil at a more constant temperature of 375 degrees Fahrenheit will make the finished product healthier for you. This is because not as much oil will be absorbed into the batter when you cook it at this constant temperature, so having a cooking thermometer can be helpful when you’re making this dish.
One piece of this kind of tempura is about 116 calories, which can add up when you’re considering that the average recommended amount for calories in a day is 2,000. Additionally, on a per piece basis, tempura of this type also has about 1.5 grams of fat and about four percent cholesterol. Additionally, if you’re wondering about the chicken tempura roll calories, this form of the food will have a few more carbohydrates due to the presence of the rice.
Despite all of this, you can eat tempura and still maintain a healthy diet. In many cases, this dish is served with veggies; compared to some other foods, this dish has a very reasonable calorie count. It’s a great idea to pair it with high-vitamin items, and if you want to cut down on the carbs, use alternatives for the white rice like riced cauliflower or brown rice.
This unique dish from Japan is perfect for a plethora of occasions, and you can even make chicken tempura from frozen chicken or just some of the leftover chicken that you have in the fridge. In my opinion, there’s nothing quite like the crunch that you get from well-prepared tempura, and it really isn’t a very hard dish to make up yourself.