Tag Archives: tempura

Tempura, vindaloo, and other Portuguese foods

My latest article for The Week is about foods that are generally considered emblematic of the cultures we associate them with, but actually carry names that show their true origins in quite different cultures:

10 signature foods with borrowed names



“O tempura! O morass!” Maury fumed, standing over some soggy shrimp fritters in his kitchen.

“O temper! O Maury!” I replied, coming over to look. “I take it the temperature was insufficient?”

“First there was the intemperately tamped tempeh, and now this trumps it! Deux fois trompé!”

“Trempette de foie?” I said, proffering pâté.

Maury dabbed a chip in it. “My culinary self-esteem is taking a dip.” He wandered into his living room and dropped himself into a chair.

“You’re just gaining seasoning,” I said, following him.

“Like a frying pan. I might as well have stuck with painting.” He gestured at a tempera of a temple. “Rather Apollo than appalling.”

“Where is that?”

“The Vale of Tempe, Greece.” He declaimed the beginning of Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn”:

“Thou still unravish’d bride of quietness,
Thou foster-child of Silence and slow Time,
Sylvan historian, who canst thus express
A flowery tale more sweetly than our rhyme:
What leaf-fringed legend haunts about thy shape
Of deities or mortals, or of both,
In Tempe or the dales of Arcady?
What men or gods are these? What maidens loth?
What mad pursuit? What struggle to escape?
What pipes and timbrels? What wild ecstasy?”

Et in arcadia ego,” I said. “Beats its namesake Tempe, Arizona, anyway.”

“Where you can fry an egg on the sidewalk,” Maury said. His testiness tempered, he rose again and returned to the kitchen.

“Well,” I said, “your food’s not so unlike painting. Egg tempura and oil. It’s the same root, anyway, tempura and tempera.”

“For which we can thank those Portuguese missionaries to Japan of four centuries ago. Them and their tempuras, which were meat-free days.”

“Other sources say it comes from tempêro, ‘seasoning,'” I pointed out. “It’s a tasting kind of word, anyway, tip and lip, like dip – French trempette. Anyway, temper, tempera, temperature, tempura, all trace back to temperare, ‘divide in due portion’, ‘mingle’, ‘temper’, ‘exercise restraint’…”

“Whereas tempeh comes from Indonesian.” Maury stood over his counter again and contemplated his ingredients. Seeing that the oil had heated up somewhat, he began dipping vegetables into the batter. “Well, I might as well view this as just a temporary setback. No point in dumping it just because it’s a bit damp.” He glanced up at the clock. “Tempus fugit!”