The best present I’ve ever unwrapped is the deep fat fryer I was given a couple of years ago. Though it’s only big enough to make enough chips for one small person, I’m barely ashamed to admit that I’ve spent entire afternoons eating tiny portions in my pants whilst watching T4.
There’s a perception that everything that comes out of a deep fat fryer is automatically junk food. Whilst in many cases this is true (one of my unhealthiest habits is Scotch eggs. I’m thinking of having hypnotherapy), there are a few genuinely healthy and delicious things that emerge from the cauldron. Vegetable tempura is one of them. And don’t worry if you don’t have a fryer, a pan half full of cheap oil will do the job equally well.
For me, Asian food is pretty much the pinnacle of culinary achievement thus far. I have a dangerous predilection for the sticky, sweet, MSG’d Chinese that comes in tupperware boxes, but making the good stuff yourself isn’t hard. Even sweet and sour, that fluorescent linchpin of the British born bastard child that is the Chinese we know, isn’t hard to make and is vastly improved by a bit of love and attention (and a lack of chemicals). I’ll write a recipe for that at a later date. Vegetable tempura is one of the easier Asian dishes to make and tastes so much better for its simplicity and freshness when homemade.
I realise that making the sweet chilli sauce might seem a little excessive, and I honestly wouldn’t blame you if you didn’t bother. But if you want to make vegetable tempura really special, or for someone really special, it is worth the effort. The difference between this and the bottled stuff is that you can control the consistency and heat.
When I made this, I stood over the fryer for about an hour, eating the tempura as soon as it was done. Freshness is definitely a desirable quality, but if you’re cooking for more than two then it’s probably worth getting the oven heated to around 120º to keep the tempura warm.
The batter here would work equally well for king prawns or even soft shell crab, but I realise they’re a bit harder to get your hands on than seasonal veg.
Let’s get battered mate!
Vegetable Tempura and Sweet Chilli Sauce
- Plain flour. About 400g.
- Hot chilli powder
- One bottle of sparkling water.
- Button mushrooms, gently washed.
- One courgette, sliced into batons.
- Broccoli, chopped in florets.
- Asparagus spears.
- Red pepper, sliced into batons.
- About half a litre of oil
For the sweet chilli sauce:
- Six red birds-eye chillis, or similar, finely chopped
- Dark soy sauce, a good glug
- The juice of one lime
- Five spice, a sprinkling
- White wine vinegar, or similar, around 50ml
- Water, around 50 ml
- Two garlic cloves, finely chopped
- Caster sugar, around 100g
Start by making the sweet chilli sauce as it needs to cool before you can eat it anyway. Combine the chopped chillis and garlic cloves in a pestle and mortar and pound until they’re a paste. Heat some oil over a medium heat and gently fry the chilli and garlic together before mixing in all the other sauce ingredients. Don’t go mad on the five spice, as it’s quite a strong flavour and can rather mask everything else. Bring to a boil and allow to bubble for about five minutes, or until the sauce has reduced to syrupy consistency. Remove from the heat and set aside to cool.
Sieve the plain flour, hot chilli powder, salt and pepper into a large mixing bowl and make a well in the centre. Slowly pour in the fizzy water, mixing all the time, until a batter about the same thickness and consistency of pancake batter has formed. For those of you who don’t know what that looks like, I guess it’s pretty much the same as pouring cream. If you don’t know what that looks like you should probably be reading another blog.
Get your deep fat fryer heated to about 190º, or if you’re just using a pan then heat the oil until a piece of bread dropped into it becomes a crouton pretty much straight away. Be careful. They aren’t fucking with you when they say this stuff hurts if it gets on your skin. Coat the vegetables in batter and allow the excess to drip off before transferring to the pan. Don’t worry if the vegetables aren’t completely covered. Also don’t overcrowd the pan. If you do, the vegetables will stick together and you’ll just have a big hot battery mess, which whilst delicious isn’t really what we’re going for here. They’ll only take three or four minutes, and are done when the batter is crispy and going slightly brown.
Drain with a slotted spoon or, if you’re using a real fryer, that weird little cage/basket thing that lives in it. I recommend putting a piece of kitchen towel under them and removing just before service. This pretty much guarantees they stay crispy and not oily. Just as with the tofu with satay sauce, this calls for something refreshing and bright – a decent French Sauvignon Blanc will do the trick – or lager.