One of the most popular washoku dishes — among Japanese and foreigners alike — is tempura. Diners seem to enjoy delicately batter-fried shrimp or fish and the dozens of vegetable combinations.
This is not surprising. In many cuisines fried foods stand out as some of the most loved restaurant fare and home-cooked comfort foods. When I was a young culinary student, one of my chef-instructors let us in on the secret.
“Got a leftover you need to sell,” he stated plainly, “then you gotta deep fry it, or throw cheese on it. Everybody likes fried things, and everybody likes cheese — if you really want to get their attention: fried mozzarella sticks.”
Well, while it was good advice for anyone supervising a college dormitory snack bar, it doesn’t really apply to washoku. Or does it?
Certainly, traditional washoku is free of cheese — free of all dairy products, in fact — but recently many chefs have added little nibbles of the coagulated milk to their menus. Imagine my surprise several years ago, at a very upscale tempura counter, when in between my tempura kaki-age of gobo and little shrimp and my perfectly fried wild mushrooms, appeared a little triangle of fried bliss. When I bit into the tempura-battered Camembert wedge, the crisp outer shell opened to reveal a soft fragrant melted center. Fried cheese — the delicious Japanese answer to a fried appetizer seen in so many chain restaurants in the West.
Alongside tempura, however, are numerous varieties of fried food that are all in their own right staples of the washoku table.
The term for the fried course — for fried things in general — is agemono. While an agemono dish or sequence of dishes can certainly stand as a meal’s center, in a more conventional washoku table setting the fried course would be a small complementary course after the sashimi and before the palate-cleansing vinegared course.
Established methods of frying include the customary tempura — adapted from methods used by early Portuguese missionaries and Dutch traders — and kara-age — a mutated Chinese style of frying things in a seasoned batter or flour coating. One more very simple style of frying certain fish and vegetables with no batter or coating at all, referred to as su-age, is used by many a chef to seal flavor in and cook an item to perfection.
Su-age is often used as a preparatory step to a finished dish. You might use the su-age method with eggplant to set the color and remove any bitterness before simmering the vegetable in a seasoned dashi. In Western cooking, we would call this blanching in oil.
But in addition to using this method as a step to bigger things, su-age may also be used to cook an item from the start and all the way through. French fries are a good example of this method. Really good French fries are cooked twice — in Japanese we would say ni do su-age — with the first cooking in hot oil just a blanching, and then once more to finish them to a golden-crisp perfection.
Garnishing a tempura preparation, little green pepper — called shishito or aoto — are often cooked in the su-age style, with no batter, to show off their color.
A few flavorful fish that can stand alone without batter are also cooked in this way. Amadai — most commonly called tilefish or horsehead in English — is one.
Amadai, which translates directly as “sweet tai” or “sweet sea bream,” is not actually a true bream or snapper. The dorsal spiky fin and red coloration may make it look like a true tai, but the pug head, tough scales and softer meat distinguish it. There are five kinds of amadai caught in the waters off Japan, differentiated by their color, mostly. In the Kansai region this well-regarded fish is called, in local dialect, guji.
The scales and outer skin are hard to remove, but in this preparation, we will leave the scales intact. While delicious raw, amadai is not eaten as sashimi often. Usually the gutted fish is salted lightly and let to sit for an hour or so before grilling, steaming or frying.
Amadai no agemono
You will want to buy one medium to small size amadai for four portions. Either clean and take the fish off the bone yourself, or have the fishmonger at the market do it for you. Either way, leave the skin on (tell the fishmonger: sanmai oroshi, kawa tsuki.) Frying the fish at a medium-low temperature (150-160 degrees C) will make the scales stand up and crisp, forming a crust. Serve a little dish of salt for dipping alongside the fish.
2 amadai fillets, about 600 grams
8 aoto peppers
1) Wipe the boned fillets gently, lay scale side down and salt lightly.
2) After one hour cut each filet into two portions.
3) Preheat the oil to 150 degrees C.
4) Carefully place each piece of fish scale side up in the hot oil; making sure it is completely covered in oil.
5) The scales should immediately stand up and begin to bubble. Fry for about 3 minutes, or until the fish seems firm and the scales have turned golden.
6) Slit each aoto pepper (so it will not explode while frying), and then fry for about 1 minute.
7) Place the fish and peppers on fry paper to absorb any excess oil before serving.
8) Serve with the peppers and a lemon wedge as garnish. Serve salt, for dipping, on the side.
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