At Tenshima, tempura meets kaiseki in a generously proportioned meal
Tenshima, the new 10-seat restaurant elevates tempura to an art form.
Japanese cooking techniques are famously delicate. The lightness of the country’s food owes much to the use of little more than heated water or broth. Which thus makes tempura seem incongruous. How did something as rib-sticking as deep-fried batter-clad seafood and vegetables make their way into the Japanese culinary canon?
For that, we have the Portuguese to thank. Their first sailors arrived in southern Japan on a Chinese ship in 1543. Jesuit missionaries followed, eventually passing on a recipe for deep-fried flour-dusted green beans called peixinhos da horta.
These snacks were served ad tempora cuaresme (“in the time of Lent” in Latin), which is where tempura derives its name. Over time, the Japanese perfected the recipe and technique for cooking tempura (as they do) to yield the ethereally light morsels of deep-fried fritters we are familiar with today.
This evolution of tempura eventually entered the realm of fine restaurants, where diners sit around a counter like baby birds in a nest waiting eagerly to be fed morsel after deep-fried morsel of batter-sheathed food. The latest of these to hit Singapore is Tenshima, helmed by chef Takahiro Shima, who brings the rigour of kaiseki to an elevated tempura meal.
In the order of kaiseki, dinner starts off lightly. A hand-formed ceramic saucer holds a bouncy tile of sesame tofu made from warabi (bracken starch) and kelp broth served in a light soy sauce with green yuzu, wasabi and shiso buds. Threads of hairy crab meat bound by crab miso are topped with an appetite-awakening vinegar jelly. Then comes a bowl of gurgling sea eel broth to warm the belly.
Thus the procession of tempura begins. Shima mixes a batter of low-gluten cake flour (for better crunch), egg yolk, filtered water and ice cubes. Because gluten strands form and weigh down the batter when it sits for too long, Shima makes a fresh batch every half hour.
First, a shatteringly crisp head of Japanese tiger prawn, followed by its plush slender body. Then sweet mini onions meant to be dipped in a mild curry powder. There is a velvety wisp of kisu (smelt), before tiles of white and yellow corn are proffered. Meltingly tender abalone is served with its liver, after which the procession of fried food is broken by a wooden chalice of cool soba noodles dressed in seasoned soy and crowned with grated mountain yam.
The pleasures of Shima’s tempura lie within the gauzy batter that is more crisp than crunch. Every ingredient comes perfectly cooked. Some have been prepped before their immersion in hot oil — the corn, for example, is steamed and then plunged in a cold water bath to intensify their sweetness; the abalone is braised in a daikon-kombu dashi before a second braising in shoyu to soften it and impart flavour.
At dinner, the menu comprises 11 tempura courses, which is plenty enough for a satisfying meal. Individually, each ingredient is generous — a fat disc of sweet scallop, a sukiyaki-sauced baton of A5 Miyazaki tenderloin accompanied by an egg yolk, firm silver beltfish, and the piece de resistance: Creamy tongues of uni on a crisp sheet of seaweed tempura with capped with caviar.
The courses that break up and bookend the tempura are equally lavish. After all those appetisers, tempura and soba comes a hearty bowl of tendon or tencha: Steamed white rice wearing a crown of kakiage — a disc-shaped fritter of chopped prawns and vegetables — which you can have lashed with a thick sweet sauce or doused in hot dashi.
By the time the sweet potato tempura with milk ice cream comes around, we are at the point of bursting. Beneath our haze we all agree that everything was excellent. The simplicity of cooking serves as a highlight for the sheer range of seasonal ingredients we’d ingested over the last two and a half hours. The meal feels like a treat… as one whose price tag stands at S$400, before tax or drinks, should.