Soft Olive Bread
“Are you serving (buckwheat noodles) with tempura today?”
A museum visitor called, saying if he can’t have this dish, he wouldn’t be coming to the museum. Fortunately, that day, it was being served. Tempura and soba, or tempura and udon noodles. Tempura has such a presence, it’s difficult to answer whether the noodles or the tempura is more important. I have a feeling there’s a story here…The tempura served at Miho Museum's Peach Valley restaurant is made of seasonal vegetables which may look simple but tasty indeed.
First, let’s take a look at the fresh vegetables, which have been beautifully cleaned and prepared. For example, we have the garland chrysanthemum and bamboo shoots in spring, eggplants and lady’s fingers in summer, pumpkins and carrots in autumn. All of these have been grown using Shumei Natural Agriculture’s methods to bring out their umami-packed flavors.
The first thing that caught our eyes was a rare mushroom called golden oyster mushroom, which resembles oyster mushrooms with yellow on top. Our chefs tell us that when they deep fry it as tempura, it has a distinctive aroma that compliments the oil. These mushrooms can be cultivated year round so they make for a great, reliable ingredient. If you look closely, you may notice the sweet potatoes have already been steamed. The chefs lightly salts them and prepares them over a low-temperature steam for 50 minutes to bring out their sweetness. The kakiage or mixed vegetable tempura has four types of vegetables—carrots, burdock, onion, and chrysanthemum leaves—which are all evenly cut into bite-sized pieces.
Apparently, they improved on how they cut the vegetables after seeing visitors having difficulty chewing through the sinewy onions.
Now, let’s see how the vegetables are fried. Our cooks use a special type of canola oil, which is cold pressed and extracted solely from the weight of a stone mortar. This oil has no extraneous flavor to detract from the flavors of the vegetables. On the counter sits a bowl with a mixture of egg and water that is chilled over ice. Flour is mixed in right before the vegetables, which have also been chilled in the refrigerator. The flow of this process begins with the carrots and mushrooms, which take the longest to fry. The lotus roots go in next. After the chrysanthemum leaves are added in, its shape is arranged. The sound of the light, crisp tempura being fried can be heard. Finally, they are mixed together to create the kakiage, which are fried to a size which is easy to eat. The onions have turned golden and are about ready when they are about to break apart, just long enough so that there is little moisture left in them. When the crispy vegetables are removed from the oil, they are arranged to be served.
We weren’t expecting to be served warm udon noodles with our sampling of the tempura, but the chefs insist they are meant to be eaten together. The tempura coating is slightly thick which complement the broth and flavored with a dash of salt to enhance its flavor. First, let’s try just the butterbur sprout alone. It is perfectly crispy and its slightly spring bitterness turns into a delightful sweet aftertaste. The kakiage falls apart in your mouth, creating a taste sensation of the slightly singed and sweet flavor of onions with the subtle aroma of the chrysanthemum leaves. The richness of the dashi stock and tempura coating add further flavor to the broth.
Added to this is the udon noodles, which left us speechless.
The chefs explained, “Tempura is actually a steamed dish wrapped in a battered coat.
Furthermore, the moisture has been removed and the flavor becomes concentrated.” We believe this is the essence of tempura. Rather than complicated techniques of making tempura, this issue explored how understanding the techniques, using high-quality oil and ingredients, and carefully incorporating each of these basics step by step are manifested in a major difference in flavor.
We could also now understand the feeling of the chefs, who put in so much work to make this flavorful dish for our visitors.