Tempora, Tempurar, or Tempura?

Today, I would like to look into the history of Tempura.

Yesterday I wrote;

Edo was full of workers who needed to feed themselves outside.  For those demand, there were many stalls where they sold ready-made food, such as Fish and Chips in Great Britain.
So, Sushi was born as fast food.  People used to eat three or four pieces of sushi standing in front of stalls and walk away as soon as they finished eating.
(Mystery of Sushi.)


A doubt came up to my mind.  Just three or four pieces of Sushi were sufficient for a man who had to be engaged in hard labor?? I would eat at least ten pieces!  The site of Tokyo Abura Tonya Ichiba, Tokyo Oil Wholesalers’ Market, gave me an answer.

They did not eat a lot for lunch because with their stomach full, they cannot move well.  So they preferred snacks and to eat something at stalls quickly not to let the stomach fool of food interfere their work.

I am not so sure that it was a good example of ‘compulsory labour that ignored the desires of the workers’ in Edo period but they look happy in Ukiyoe works.  It is natural that they gave priority to their work if they loved what they did.



The town of Edo full of stalls and people


So, Tempura was one of the popular dishes for lunch at stalls as well as Sushi in Edo period.

It is said to have been introduced to Japan in Nagasaki by Portuguese Jesuit missionaries in 16th century.  There said to be two possible origins of the name ‘Tempura'; the Portuguese word ‘tempora’ which means ‘times’ that refers to Christian holy days when Catholics avoid red meat and eat fish or vegetables instead, and another Portuguese word ‘temperar’ which means “to season”.

Whichever the origin is, there should have been some kind of misunderstanding or misinterpretation between Portuguese missionaries and Japanese bureaucrats.  My guessing is, a cook might have said

“Eu tempero peixinhos da horta com sal.” (I season “peixinhos da horta” with salt.)
“Comemos os peixinhos da horta da ocasião especial como tempora.” (We eat “peixinhos da horta” for special occasion like holy days.)

**The above Portuguese sentences are my creation with Google translate! Portuguese or Brazilian readers, please help me!

I mean, an interpreter didn’t know the word ‘peixinhos da horta’ and couldn’t understand the meaning of the whole sentence. He just took only the easiest word to catch imagining that a Portuguese cook would have told him the name of the dish! In fact, ‘peixinhos da horta’ literally means ‘Garden fishes’ but it is the name of the dish which can be thought as the origin of tempura. He should have asked the cook what “Garden fishes” meant but he might have been too shy… But if I were the interpreter maybe I would have done the same thing… What a risky job the interpretation is!



Peixinhos da Horta, the origin of Tempura!


Tempura spread to Kyoto/Osaka area in 17th century and landed in Edo at the time of Tokugawa shogunate.  Since the oil was still very precious, Tempura was a luxurious dish at the beginning.  As the Shoguns encouraged and controlled oil making to secure the enough quantity in Edo, Tempura became popular and normal citizens were able to eat them easily at stalls.  For Tempura, sesame seed oil were mainly used in Central Edo, at Nihonbashi, Tokyo area.

As well as Sushi, it was called Edomae Tempura and fresh seafood captured in Edo bay were used as ingredients, such as Kuruma prawns (Marsupenaeus), Anago (Congridae), Haze (Gobioidei, Kisu (Sillaginidae).  At stalls, people used to eat Sushi with fingers, while each ingredients of Tempura was on skewer because Tempura was too hot and too oily to pinch.


Nowadays, there are all kinds of Tempura from luxurious to one-coin lunch as well as Sushi.  Try at least once the real good Tempura if you can afford.  You will know the determinate difference.  You don’t have to spend 30,000 yen for each. (If your purse permits you, don’t hesitate to go!)  But I strongly recommend you to experience the Tempura of Yamanoue hotel (Hilltop Hotel).  You will never be able to forget the incomparable taste of Tempura and I’m sure, after the experience of their Tempura, you will know that Tempura has become a very original Japanese dish with renovation and new techniques although it was imported from foreign country.
にほんブログ村 歴史ブログ 日本の伝統・文化へ
にほんブログ村 英語ブログ 英語の日記(和英併記)へ



Photo of Tempura of Yamanoue Hotel (Hilltop Hotel



Address: 1-1 Kanda-Sudacho, Chiyoda-ku, Tokyo
TEL: 03-3293-2831
Price Range: (Lunch) 5,000 yen ~ (Dinner) 10,000 ~
*IMPORTANT!: Reservation required!  Better to tell at the reservation that you would like to take a counter seat.




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