The Origins of Tempura

The Origins of Tempura

When you think about those yummy and colourful fried vegetables or seafood, the first thing that pops up in your mind must be Japanese cuisine. Well, think again, it actually comes from a Portuguese recipe, made international in the 1500s.

In the 1500s Portugal was living its Golden Age, sending sailors to explore the world, the known and the unknown, searching for spices and other valuable goods. The expedition of Vasco da Gama that reached India for the first time in 1498 is world-famous and it opened a new chapter in world history but in 1543 we were aiming further away and the Portuguese became the first European to reach Japan. The country of the rising sun was experiencing a civil war at the time, so they accepted the Portuguese as trading partners, in order to get the European technology that would end the war: firearms. This is the beginning of the long relationship between the two countries, not only would they trade goods such as tobacco, textiles or soap, but there was also an exchange of culture, vocabulary and… recipes!

The Portuguese missionaries, as Catholics, were not allowed to eat meat during the ember days (in Latin called ad tempora quadragesimae) and so they used to batter and fry vegetables or seafood, but especially the green beans. In Portugal, people that could not afford to buy fish would also use this recipe. Until today, we call it: peixinhos da horta, literally little fish from the garden – as the fried vegetables would resemble colourful little fish.

The word tempura probably comes from the Latin tempora, from those times of fasting. You can still find peixinhos da horta in many traditional Portuguese restaurants today. They can be served as a starter or a main dish and today it’s always crispy deep-fried green beans.
The Japanese adopted the Portuguese recipe, improved it and made it world-famous: you can find many vegetables, shrimps, mushrooms turned into tempura, even though the simplicity of the original recipe travelled from across the world.

So next time you come across a Portuguese restaurant don’t forget to order the original tempura or, better yet, come straight to the source and in your next trip to Portugal let us know and we will share with you the best restaurants where you can try this tasty delicacy.

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