08 July 2012

Not-so-known Japan: Origins of Tempura

Tempura. Image from Wikipedia
You might think tempura is something purely Japanese. It does have kanji: 天麩羅. The first character means heaven, the second is bran / wheat bran / mash, the last character means from. So tempura would literally translate to "bran/wheat bran/mash from heaven."

The word actually originated possibly from one of three Portuguese-related words:
  • tempora, a Latin word that roughly translates to "a period of time" and more specifically to the Lenten / Christian holy days;
  • tempero, a noun that refers to a spicy condiment or peppery seasoning; or
  • temperar, a verb meaning "to season."
Peixinhos da horta. Image from Wikipedia
Actually, there is still today a dish in Portugal very similar to tempura called peixinhos da horta, that literally translates to "garden fishies." Tempura was introduced to Japan in the mid-sixteenth century by Portuguese Jesuits, during the same period that panko and such dishes as tonkatsu were also introduced from Portugal. It is also possible that the Portuguese picked the technique up from Goa which was their colony in India and this could very well be a variation of the "pakora."

Why does tempura have kanji? It's in the same way that the words "Philippines," "Catholic," and many other words have kanji that are pronounced very similarly to their Western/English pronunciation. That's going to be a topic for next time. :-)

Is tempura then not Japanese food? It is. In the same way that ramen (Chinese in origin; i.e. lo mien) and gyoza (Chinese in origin; i.e. jiaozi) particularly those you eat here in Japan are very distinctly Japanese, different from the Chinese versions of those foods, and that lumpiang shanghai (Chinese in origin; i.e. chunjuan or lunpia) and pancit canton (Chinese in origin; i.e. chow mien, chaomian) are distinctly Filipino, different from the Chinese versions of those foods. In the same way that American English is still English, though distinctly American and very different from their British origins.

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