I love sushi as much as the next guy, but for your average American sushi joint appetizer, it’s hard to beat that nice little basket of tempura veggies. Hopefully still hot and crunchy, with that batter that looks sort of like a golden-yellow icicle and the sweet soy-based dipping sauce (tentsuyu!), it goes great with a nice champagne-y Japanese lager.
Vegetable tempura was probably the first thing I ever ate at a Japanese restaurant as a child and I can confirm that it still rips as an adult. The batter is so good that it almost doesn’t matter what’s inside, which is probably the philosophical basis of the entire dish. But that doesn’t mean we don’t all have our favorites. And you often have to choose what you reach for, because it’s one of those dishes that everyone at the table will assume is a shareable (at least in my family, buncha god damned wolves).
A note on what we included: Obviously, shrimp and other seafood probably makes the best tempura. Yet you can’t just order nothing but shrimp tempura. For one, it’s kind of overkill, and for another it makes the shrimp tempura taste less good if it’s not a rare delicacy that you have to hunt for. Ordering homogeneous shrimp tempura with no veggies is like eating de-shelled pumpkin seeds — not having to work for it just doesn’t seem right. It doesn’t taste as good.
In terms of actual vegetables, I’m not talking about your specialty items here either that you’d order in homogeneous form — your tempura green beans, your asparagus tempura. Both are great, but for these purposes, we’re only counting vegetables that come standard, or at least semi-standard, in your typical mixed vegetable tempura order. So don’t come in here and start asking me shit like “but Vince, what about deep-fried squash blossoms?!”
1. Lotus Root
Lotus root is the king of tempura vegetables. It’s perfect. It has the root vegetable texture that’s perfect to fry, can be sliced wafer-thin, and has basically the maximum allowable surface area you could possibly get from a thinly-sliced vegetable. A fried lotus root is almost cheating. It’s the corked bat of fried vegetables. Lotus root is like a gilded potato chip that’s soft and juicy inside. If I were to design a perfect frying vegetable out of thin air I probably couldn’t do better than a lotus root.
It’s like a naturally occurring bloomin’ onion.
2. Sweet Potato
Sweet potato comes in at number two… if it’s sliced thinnish, ideally not much more than an eighth-inch thick. A thinly-sliced sweet potato has that nice pumpkinny sweet flavor and beautifully soft texture inside. Too thick and they get dry and mushy. A thicker sliced sweet potato would be down at number four or five or lower. Regular potato is also great, though not common enough for the list. Yucca root is also solid, but more of a South American thing.
Tempura carrots retain a little more snap than tempura sweet potatoes. Your mileage may vary. I definitely prefer it to a thicker sweet potato, but they admittedly don’t quite have the melt-in-your-mouth quality of sweet potatoes. I give carrots B+ for texture, A for flavor, and C for sauce retain-ability.
4. Kabocha squash
I had to do a little Googling to figure out “what are those little cantaloupe-looking things that taste like a sweet potato?”
If you’re smarter than me you already knew, that’s a kabocha squash. They look like little green pumpkins when whole. In tempura form, they look like a little fried slice of cantaloupe and taste like fried pumpkin pie. They’re moister than sweet potato with less snap than carrot. All three are kind of a wash depending on slice thickness. Like sweet potato, the thinner the better with kabocha, though the kabocha is more forgiving. It’s like a lower risk, lower reward sweet potato.
I love the flavor of a fried mushroom. I don’t even really care what kind. Button mushroom? Why not. Shiitake? Shiit yeah. Mushrooms lack some of the elegant simplicity of a deep-fried root vegetable and have a spongier texture, but they make up for it in the flavor department. The worst thing about tempura mushrooms, mostly in the case of white or button mushrooms, is that they tend to retain a bit of liquid, so if you don’t wait long enough, sometimes biting into one can shoot superheated 200-degree liquid right onto your soft palate.
That’s a bad night. But hey, I like to live dangerously.
Honestly, onions could go a lot higher. They fry up beautifully, and they’re sweet, soft, and moist inside. The full trifecta. Gimme a nice thicc one, save that skinny stuff for your hamburgers and string bean casseroles. The only thing holding tempura onions back on this list is their own ubiquity. You don’t need to order tempura to experience a nice battered onion ring (battered > breaded, do not dispute me on this).
Victims of their own success, really.
Cauliflower is like sturdier broccoli and it makes a great frying vegetable. Ever had buffalo cauliflower? Wonderful (though again, it better be breaded. Don’t you dare try to pass off some non-breaded nonsense as buffalo cauliflower). It makes a great tempura vegetable for the same reasons. While they lack the texture of a root veg, and the flavor of roots or mushrooms, they somewhat make up for it in superior dunkability. Those florets are great for soaking up sauce (mom joke goes here).
Is it controversial to put broccoli below cauliflower? It’s not as moist or as tender as cauliflower and the florets are more delicate so they don’t stand up to deep frying quite as well. I’d also argue that broccoli is a little stinkier. Still, absolute A+ sauce retention and best-in-class dunkability.
9. Bell Pepper
If this was Rotten Tomatoes, I’d put the thumb’s up/thumb’s down line right above bell pepper. I mean, they’re fine. I’m not going to throw a deep-fried bell pepper out of bed. But green bell peppers are often used as filler, and never more so than in vegetable tempura. If you want to stuff it with something (rice, meat, whatever), or swap it out for jalapeño… now we’re talking. Plain fried bell pepper though? Solid “meh.”
I don’t get zucchini. Is it a cucumber? Is it an eggplant? Is it like if a cucumber f*cked an eggplant? Why does the texture seem to be the same cooked or uncooked? How do you even know if it’s done? Why do people keep trying to put it in muffins? A zucchini muffin at least makes more sense than zucchini tempura. Zucchini is (are?) too moist to fry well and they just end up soft and rubbery (dad joke goes here).
I don’t know that I hate zucchini, but I sure don’t understand it.
Eggplant has its place. I love a baba ghanoush. An eggplant parmesan. A nice moussaka. The Indians do incredible work with it. It’s creamy and it takes nicely to a sauce and some spice. But let’s face it: eggplant sucks as tempura. It’s too moist, not sturdy enough, and too bland. It usually turns into a mushy, soggy, mess. I vote NO on eggplant tempura. At least until I’ve already eaten all the other vegetables.