Here’s the thing with tempura — it can be a bit of a tease. You buy in because of the battered crumb. Done right, it delivers a light-as-air crunch that gives way to a burst of juiciness. Yet, you’re never quite sure if what’s behind the batter is a slice of lotus root or potato, until that first bite.
Chef Takahiro Shima clears such doubts. The head chef of Ginza Tenharu, an offshoot of the eponymous restaurant in Tokyo, is a master of the swish and swirl. It’s almost like a dance. You watch, mesmerised, as his hands expertly twirl the battered ingredients in bubbling hot oil.
“Over the counter, I am able to see the happy expressions of my customers. I don’t have to rely on just my service staff to tell me feedback.”
– Takahiro Shima, head chef of Ginza Tenharu
If a calligrapher paints beautiful words with deft, sure strokes, Shima does the same with his tempura.
Take the kisu (Japanese whiting fish), a staple on the menu here. Shima swirls the battered white fish in a deliberate, circular fashion in the hot oil, a technique he picked up while training at the Ginza outpost for a month. This causes the fish to curl up like a Chinese spoon. The bold curves — as if the fish bends for you — are sexy as they come.
“It is my way of recommending customers to enjoy the kisu. Use it as a spoon, put some radish on it, and dip it into the (tempura) sauce,” shares Shima.
The Japanese native pays as much attention to crumb as he does to curves. He wants none of that thick, doughy shell that resists when your teeth try to sink in. Instead, Shima works with a single bowl of batter. Into this bowl, he tosses more tempura powder when he wants a thicker mixture, or adds ice cubes when he needs a thin batter.
“It depends on the ingredient,” he says. The sea urchin tempura, for instance, needs just a sheer coat of batter. The creamy Hokkaido uni is wrapped in a thin piece of seaweed specially brought in from Mie prefecture. Shima dabs batter on the sides of the delicate green, folds it over the uni, and expertly presses out the excess air.
The seaweed-wrapped uni is then dipped into a watered-down batter. He flicks off the excess batter before cooking, so there’s just a light layer of crumb enrobing the uni tempura.
Shima is quite the entertainer, as he swirls his freshest seasonal produce in batter, and then hot oil. But few know that the kaiseki-trained chef spent his whole career inside a kitchen, and craved the experience of working behind a counter. Ginza Tenharu is his dream come true.
“Over the counter, I am able to see the happy expressions of my customers. I don’t have to rely on just my service staff to tell me feedback. I can tell by looking at their expressions and body language,” says Shima.
He recounts an episode where a customer mistook a miniature bonsai plant, served as decoration to a dish, for a dessert.
“The customer dug in and nearly took a bite of the soil, thinking it was chocolate,” shares Shima, with a loud chuckle. “I shouted a very loud ‘NO!’ and he immediately stopped eating.” He might not speak English fluently — the good-natured chef admits communication is a problem — but his sense of humour and expressive movements are enough for over-the-counter repartee.