When I was in junior high school, there was one thing I always bought and ate on my way home. Light brown, fried, and wrapped in aluminum foil… tempurā. If you are from mainland Japan, you may wonder why I would eat this for an afternoon snack. But if you grew up in Okinawa, you surely must have done the same.
I don’t know why, but there are restaurant/diner-like places around schools in Okinawa. Compared to regular restaurants and diners, they don’t have many foods to offer. Near my junior high school, there were three such places that called themselves “parlors” and were always full of students. In Okinawa, “parlors” people may think of fruits in Japan, but every parlor I can remember sold tempurā. When I think of it now, it’s a bit strange, but until I graduated from junior high school, I believed that tempurā was always available at parlors. I remember them being priced between 30 and 50 yen. Most of the time, I only had a few coins rattling in the pocket of my school uniform, so when I could buy three or more pieces, I felt as though I was rich. Even when I ate them inside the parlor, I rarely used chopsticks. Tempurā was our snack, so we didn’t need to worry about manners. The ingredients are covered in flour batter then deep-fried. They are round, thick, and soft, which is quite different from the typically elegant Japanese tempurā. They are rich in flavor, but everyone still eats them with Japanese Worcestershire sauce. This combination may be more surprising than the appearance of the tempurā and presence of those parlors, but the sauce goes well with the thick, fritter-like coating. Fish, potatoes, vegetables, squid, and sausages are commonly used for Okinawan tempurā. Fish and vegetables are my favorites, especially white fish.
On my way home from school, I would stop by a parlor and order two fish tempurā. The lady at the counter would ask, “Do you want me to pour the sauce for you?” And I would answer, “Pour it on one of them, the other one doesn’t need it.” As I walked home I would enjoy the warm tempurā, each with a different taste. Living in Tokyo, I sometimes go to affordable restaurant chains like Tenya, but it doesn’t feel quite right to me. To me, tempurā is about eating with my hands while walking. Rather than the Japanese soy sauce-based dipping, it has to be with the Worcestershire sauce or just on its own. Warmer and more savory than hamburgers, they are the things that represent Okinawa to me. Tempurā was the first fast food I ever had (Oh, now I really want to eat some).1
- Later, seaweed tempura was invented and became popular with its chewy texture. In 2023, the price is about 70 yen per piece.