OVER the centuries the Japanese have developed a great love of form and, consequently, they live according to very strict rules of etiquette. They have a sense of beauty that reaches deep into the national soul . . . and pervades every aspect of their lives. Eating is important to every Japanese, as are the selection aand preparation of food.
The Japanese, much like the British, have a realistic sense of space and an ancient awareness of the limitations of their island, yet they have taken full and often interesting advantage of their very limited resources. One example is Japanese cuisine, much of which originated in Buddhist monasteries. For the better part of three millennia, Buddhist priests have had the time and inclination to think profoundly about what they eat, and they have refined and redefined their diet with patient expertise. Zen priests have arrived at a diet that makes them healthy . . . and keeps them that way.
The priests concluded early on that whole grains are good, nurturing foods for the human organism. They then realized that whole grains combined with native Japanese beans, fruit, seeds, vegetables, seaweed and fish provide humans with virtually all the nutrients they need. From those ancient times through today the Japanese have been busy developing new and artful methods of preparing their basic foodstuff.
One of the more interesting methods of preparation is tempura: fruit, vegetables and seafood dipped in batter and deep-fried. But that simple description ignores the secret: it is the reaction of very cold batter hitting very hot oil that makes perfect, lightly coated tempura. TEMPURA WITH SESAME RICE (4 servings) 3/4 pound medium shrimp 1 large, sweet red pepper 1 apple 12 medium scallions 16 green beans 2 quarts corn oil 8 tablespoons sesame oil Tempura batter: 1 cup whole-wheat flour 1 cup very cold water 1/2 teaspoon salt 3/4 teaspoon cornstarch 1 egg Sesame rice: 2 cups long-grain brown rice 5 teaspoons sesame seeds 1/4 teaspoon salt Tempura dipping sauce: 2 teaspoons grated ginger 8 tablespoons tamari soy sauce 2 tablespoons water
Peel the shrimp and cut them in two crosswise, not down the center. Cut the pepper, apple, scallions and beans into bite-sized pieces.
Make the batter by mixing 1 cup whole-wheat flour with 1/2 cup very cold water, 1/2 teaspoon of salt and 3/4 teaspoon of cornstarch. Beat until smooth and then stir in the other 1/2 cup of water and a beaten egg.
Place the shrimp in one bowl and the red pepper, apple, scallions and green beans in another, then pour batter over them. Mix well by hand. Place both bowls in the freezer an hour before dinner is to be served.
(Ideally the tempura should be fried at the dinner table. It's also a good idea to use two pots because if you try to do too much at one time the different pieces tend to stick to each other. If it is not practical to do it at the table do it in the kitchen . . . but adjust the instructions accordingly. Either way, mix each quart of corn oil with 4 tablespoons of sesame oil and make certain the depth of oil in each pot is at least 3 inches and that the temperature is exactly 375 degrees. Use a thermometer, as this measurement is really important.)
Again, 1 hour before dinner, wash the brown rice with cool water in a colander. Bring 4 cups of water to a boil in a large pot and add the rice. Cover, reduce the heat, and cook for 50 minutes to 1 hour. One-half hour before dinner place 5 teaspoons of sesame seeds and 1/4 teaspoon of salt in an iron skillet and place over fairly high heat. Stir the mixture until the seeds take on a rich, nut-brown color. This should take no more than 5 minutes. Add this mixture to the rice and stir it in.
Mix dipping sauce ingredients together and divide it equally in 2 bowls.
When the tempura is dropped into the hot oil it will immediately fall to the bottom of the pot and then rise quickly. When the batter gets a nice tanned look to it, turn the piece over and fry for a couple minutes more. Remove and dry on paper towels. Again, try not to do too many at one time.
If the frying is done in the kitchen put the finished pieces in the oven at 200 degrees. Serve the tempura and the rice hot. As you chew the rice you will notice that the toasted sesame seeds tend to creat the illusion of tiny nut-flavored explosions; this is a delightful palate tease, as is the ginger/soy dipping sauce.