Retro/Proto-grading on homegrown rockets of herbal bliss, somewhere in the precarious balance between taste bud ecstasy and practical applications of time and space, is where reside my abilities to create, implement and cook up recipes of a questionable kind of originality. I’m in no way saying here that Everything Has Been Done where food is concerned, but damn if the French didn’t do most of it by the 18th Century. The haute cuisine stuff anyway. The other good stuff (Central/South American, North/Central African, Indian/Nepali, Chinese/Korean, Vietnamese all on its own) has its place in any kitchen, but what of creativity? Where does my addled 21st-century California Mind come into play here? What of taking convention a bit further? What of thinly-sliced Gravlax over a fresh, well-chilled Gado-gado? What of the high risk of failure? Where do your basic mirepoix and bechamel sauces belong among today’s Asian-savvy line cooks? What of living on the fringe of the culinary universe, always just one misguided pinch of fennel from falling off into the bland, over-processed ether? What of the beautiful fusion known as le métissage gastronomique?
If living in Japan has taught me anything, it’s that the Japanese love – LOVE – fried food. Forget the fact that the Macrobiotic diet originated in Japan, and the world tends to think of the Japanese as being one of the healthiest races around, tonkatsu (fried pork cutlet), karaage (fried chicken), ebi furai (fried shrimp) age-dash-dofu (fried whole tofu), gyōza (dumplings), inarizushi (sushi rice in fried tofu pouches), natsumaki (Summer rolls) and especially tempura are the current staples of daily Japanese cuisine. So representative of this land of borrowed culture, the Japanese word Tempura is actually Portugese (tempero – referring to the fried fish the Portugese Missionaries ate in the time of Lent – ad tempora quadragesimae) in origin.
In all fairness, 天ぷら Tempura – lighter and crisper than most other deep fried foods – was mastered here and not in Portugal, just as sushi – originally hailing from southeast Asia & China – came to be the world famous Japanese food it is now, here. I myself have developed a taste for tempura, though usually from my own kitchen (that or one particular yatai, or food stall, I know of), where I know how – and how long – the oil is used. I also happen to have once lived at the south end of the Kanmon Straight – the border between the islands of Kyushu & Honshu – the most ubiquitious feral beds of fugu (puffer or blowfish) in the world. While fugu is well known as an extremely poisonous fish (the liver, ovaries and skin contain the neurotoxin tetrodotoxin, 1200 times more toxic than cyanide), it’s also one of the blandest. Regardless, plates of thinly sliced fugu sashimi can exceed a hundred dollars, often due to the exaggerated allure of completely conscious asphyxiation a missliced torafugu liver will produce in the consumer.
I myself have no fear of a pufferfish-induced death, due in part to the rigorous 3-year training course expectant chefs have to undergo here, as well as the secret inner knowledge that no fish will be the one to introduce me to my maker (octopuses, squid and sharks, on the other hand, aren’t fish). But I also have no clear desire to eat the little blow-daddy just because it’s there, especially not for these prices, yet I do have easy access to the stuff, so…Maybe you can see the neurotransmitters doing their thing, synapses creating new bridges, serotonin cocktails passing around. So, me and my cooking cohort (what I call my cock) decide it’s high time to fuse some boring fugu with some tempura batter, fry on high for a few minutes and, combining with a few other simple flavors, create new gastronomic worlds the physical laws for remain undefinable.
I give you Tempura Fugu Tacos. Now the thing about tempura batter is it should be mixed with equal parts ice cold soda water and egg yolks (2 is good), stirred rapidly with chopsticks for only a short time in order to preserve the lumpy quality characteristic to tempura. So, after heating your wok full of an oil with a high smoking point- sesame, peanut or vegetable (or even a mixture thereof)- oil to 190°F, cutting the fugu into chunks, prepare your batter mixture. When the batter floats the oil is ready to go, though you don’t want to fry too much as once as the oil temperature will drop too low, screwing the Kitchen Adonis image your drooling audience has of you all to hell. Take out of oil after 2-3 minutes and nicely golden, resting on a paper towel for a bit to soak up excess oil. Salt it! Of course you’ve already made your red onion, tomato, pepper based pico de gallo, cut the avocado into long green quarter moons, and been heating your corn tortillas all the while, right? So, once your tempura‘s done and dried a bit, throw it on that tortilla, adding the previously mentioned accoutrements and get to eating while it’s still hot.
Beer’s good. So’s horchata. So’s mojitos.