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How to fry, Japanese-style

(article, Matthew Amster-Burton)

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Last time I wrote about deep-frying, it was largely to warn you about the various ways it might burn your house down. 

"Why all the negativity, man?" people complained.

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So today I'm going to make it up to you, by telling you about three ways to fry, Japanese-style (agemono). Each method is so good, it's totally worth a small house fire.

You've probably come across one or more of these methods at your local Japanese restaurant, but they're worth trying at home, especially if you took my advice and bought yourself an electric deep fryer. I did; I ended up with a model called the [%amazonProductLink "Presto CoolDaddy" asin=B00066XROE]. It's almost as fun to use as it is to say.

[%image reference-image float=right width=400 caption="Tori no karaage is Japanese fried chicken."]As with all deep-frying, oil temperature is critical. Even if you have an electric fryer with a thermostat, it's probably not very accurate. Use a digital instant-read thermometer instead. Don't overload the oil. And use refined vegetable (canola, soybean, safflower) or peanut oil for these recipes.

Oh, and please don't be scared off by the Japanese culinary terminology. This is all crispy fried stuff, beloved worldwide.

h3. Karaage and tatsutaage

As you read this, millions of servings of tori no karaage are ensconced in bento boxes, waiting to make millions of people very happy. This is Japanese fried chicken. Like American fried chicken, it's good hot or cold. Also like American fried chicken, even mediocre versions are pretty darn good. The recipe I'm going to offer is anything but mediocre.

Karaage refers to anything breaded with a mix of starch (potato or corn) and flour. Tatsutaage is breaded with starch alone. In practice, however, Japanese fried chicken in the West is called karaage, and the word tatsutaage is rare. Tofu cooked in the same manner is called agedashi tofu (pronounced "aga-dashi dofu").

I'd eaten tori no karaage plenty of times but never made it myself until I started researching this column. It became a new favorite family dinner on the first try — it's that easy and that good.

h3. Furai

You were wondering when I was going to get to panko, right? Well, here you go. These flaky breadcrumbs, used to coat food just before frying it, inspire devotion from the first crunchy mouthful. 

You can't make panko at home; you have to buy it. In my experience, American health-food brands (especially Ian's, made with just flour, sugar, salt, and yeast) are just as good as imported brands.

Furai is a little more complicated than karaage, but still easy. To make the panko stick to the food, you dip the item in flour, then egg, then panko. You'll inevitably bread your fingers in the process.

The classic furai dish is tonkatsu, breaded pork cutlet, served with ketchup-like tonkatsu sauce and a heap of shredded cabbage.  Make it with a chicken-breast cutlet and it's called chikinkatsu (seriously!). Make it with shrimp or oysters and you have ebi furai or kaki furai.

Unlike karaage or tempura, furai dishes generally lend themselves well to pan-frying if you don't feel like heating up a whole cauldron of oil.

h3. Tempura

Tempura is the undisputed pinnacle of Japanese frying. Like other undisputed pinnacles, such as Mount Fuji, it's pretty hard to get there. On a scale of cooking difficulty, I'd give karaage a two and furai a three. As for tempura, are you familiar with the expression “these go to eleven”?

The trouble is the batter. Maybe "batter" is the wrong word. Tempura batter contains only egg, water, and flour, but it looks like an avant-garde chef's deconstructed pancakes. As Shizuo Tsuji puts it in Japanese Cooking, "The marks of good tempura batter are a powdery ring of flour at the sides of the mixing bowl and a mixture marked with lumps of dry flour."

To make tempura, you dip vegetables or seafood in flour, then in tempura batter, then fry it in a mixture of vegetable oil and toasted sesame oil. The dipping helps mix the batter. Can you overmix the batter by dipping too vigorously? Yes. Yes, you can.

To continue the pancake analogy, when you make tempura, you are trapped in the kitchen, because it has to be cooked in small batches and served immediately. The good news is, as Tsuji puts it, you can "quite enjoyably snack while frying and serving."

If you're not already on the way to your local Japanese restaurant to have them make tempura for you, here's a good recipe from japanesefood.about.com. (The only thing I'd do differently is add a bit of sesame oil — say, 1/4 cup — to the frying oil). 

I'd recommend kabocha squash for your first tempura item. Quarter the squash, scrape out the seeds, and cut it into half-moon slices about 1/3-inch thick. The cooked squash is extremely delicious even if the coating doesn't come out quite right, and the shape makes it easy to dip.

Now, start frying. If you enjoy the chicken karaage_ as much as I did, great! In lieu of thanks, please come over and teach me how to make better tempura.

p(bio). [matthew.reviews@gmail.com "Matthew Amster-Burton"] writes about cooking and culture from his home in Seattle. He is the author of the book Hungry Monkey and keeps a blog titled Roots and Grubs.


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