Perfect tempura in a beautiful traditional-modern space
Iseiku is a restaurant on Nishikimachi street in Hikone close to Ginza. Its earthen coloured exterior and the suit of armour in the broad entrance proclaim it as a traditional establishment of long standing. The staff, spry ladies of advancing years, welcome you with a cheery “Ōkini!”, the multipurpose greeting of the Kansai region.
I visited Iseiku to eat at Teniku, a subdivision of the main restaurant specialising in tempura, everyone’s favourite deep fried titbits. We were taken down a corridor past several tatami rooms with sliding doors, coming to a Western-style door. At the entrance step, I was going to take my shoes off, but the lady indicated that I should go in shod. We found ourselves in an airy, modern space with an L-shaped counter with chairs, looking out onto a traditional Japanese garden. The pines beyond the huge picture window had clearly been there for a very long time.
The master, Miyagawa Yoshinori appears behind the counter bearing a wooden tray arranged with beautiful fresh vegetables and little dish of nearly transparent fry—no, not what’s going to be happening soon—I mean baby fish, from Toyama Bay to the north.
I ask Miyagawa-san about the origins of Teniku. Naturally the story starts in the distant past with Iseiku. “Iseiku was established as a ryokan in 1877, the tenth year of Meiji. The road in front of our restaurant used to go all the way to Ise in Mie, and the seafood used here was brought from the Pacific at Ise, hence the name of the restaurant.” He’s the seventh generation of his family to run the business. Somewhere along the line, they decided to drop the accommodation and focus on food. Miyagawa-san’s young son is in line to take over one day. Teniku was started a few years ago to make use of some spare space in the large old building.
Miyagawa-san starts making tempura behind a hammered copper hood, by which the happy sound of deep frying is amplified. The waitress enquires about drinks and brings a menu of sake exclusively from Ōmi. She explains the different brews and their characteristics. “Shichihonyari is the most popular.” That makes deciding easy. The Shichihonyari junmai arrives quickly with a choice of choko cups. What sake does Miyagawa-san generally recommend with tempura? “A lot of people drink white wine with it, but a dry sake also goes very well.”
The meal begins with a soup of Taga carrot. “Taga carrot has a deep, rich flavour, and a very good colour. I once asked a farmer why this is, and he said it had to do with the rich soil around Taga.” This was followed by the first serving of tempura, a slice of sweetcorn. Each item is prepared individually, and when it’s cooked to perfection, the master leans over the counter and places it on a piece of paper on a tray in front of you. There’s a selection of condiments—lemon in a little squeezer, freshly ground rock salt, and tentsuyu, a blend of fish broth and soy sauce. This comes with some grated Ibuki daikon. “For corn, I recommend salt. Actually, salt is good with everything, but we like to offer a bit of variety.”
The slow parade of morsels includes crab and shrimp, a thick shiitake mushroom, and sesame tofu, which melts into a delicious creamy sauce inside the crispy batter. What a heavenly contrast of textures it is. There are also two kinds of sansai, mountain vegetables, characterised by a mild bitterness that makes the perfect counterpoint to the tempura batter. It all matches very nicely with the dry Shichihonyari sake.
Does Miyagawa-san ever consider serving Ōmi beef tempura? The answer is no, and he patiently explains why not. “The main flavour of meat is in its fat, and if you cook it in oil, all of the fat washes out, so it ends up without much taste. It’s a waste of good meat really. There are better ways of cooking it.” “Talking of oil, what do you use for frying tempura?” “We use very light sesame oil. It’s filtered so it doesn’t have the strong taste of sesame oil used for pan frying, but it does impart a subtle flavour.”
The talk turns to other things that can be made into tempura.
“Pretty much everything works.”
I mention that I once had tempura made from a plum used for making umeshu plum wine. Miyagawa-san becomes distinctly animated.
“I’ve never heard of that! That’s very interesting.”
He disappears through the curtain behind the counter and emerges shortly with some umeshu plums and gets to work at the copper. On the tray he places a boozy plum with a delicate coating of tempura.
“I take no responsibility for this! This is the first time I’ve ever served something I haven’t tried myself.”
He needn’t have worried. The plum was soft and succulent in its crisp coat, and the alcoholic sweetness of the umeshu complemented the batter beautifully. From the satisfied sighs of his customers, he knew he had a winner.
After this impromptu interlude, the meal continued with chazuke, a serving of rice topped with mixed tempura, with a rich fish broth poured over it, followed by a dessert of fruit. The spring sunshine poured through the window on a row of contented people at the elegant counter.