In Hong Kong where I grew up, fried food is the devil. Oh, you better beware, we are taught at a young age, because it will tempt you with its crispy skin, delicious crunch from its golden brown caramelization, and if you give in to the temptation, you are fated for an omen of acne hell, bad skin, sore throats and many unlucky hardships.
That’s why I don’t eat it all the time, but when a good fried chicken or a yummy Blue Star doughnut comes along, I just can’t say no. And it’s ok because I don’t eat it all the time, so I know that the food gods shining down on me will give me a pass because my sinful indulgences are few and far in between (at least that’s what I tell myself). I’m human after all, and life is too short to deprive myself of good food.
When I was in Tokyo a few weeks ago with my Dad, we were so excited to gorge on one our favourite cuisines in the world. There are so many things to love about Japanese food, and one of our favourites, unfortunately, is fried. The all glorious and ubiquitous tempura. I don’t eat a lot of it because it’s never worth it to waste a greasy conscience on the tiniest piece of prawn hidden in a thick deceiving prawn shaped batter. Which is the case more often than not. But serve me a perfectly cooked LARGE PRAWN tempura in the lightest batter and my conscience goes out the door. So when a friend of mine who sent me his Tokyo recommendations mentioned that he had the best tempura he’s ever had in his life at Mikawa Zezankyo, it piqued my interest. I knew that it had to be a part of our food itinerary.
Mikawa Zezankyo changed my life, it broke the fried food stereotype I was led to believe my whole life. The first was the realisation that anything done right can become a showcase of artistry. Even something associated with cheap fast food joints. The funny thing is I even tried to cancel our reservation until I found out that there was a cancellation fee of 10,000 Yen per person. For a tempura joint?? Confused, we decided to push through and as soon as we stepped into the restaurant we knew we were in for quite a surprise.
The restaurant is located off the beaten path requiring you to walk 15 minutes from the closest subway station through a maze of narrow residential alleys. Our journey took us to a nondescript house where we were asked to remove our shoes and taken to a private traditional tatami room. No other tables next to us, no loud chatter from customers us downing sake. Just a large room for two, a low traditional Japanese table with a hand drawn menu of the fish and seafood omakase meal we were about to enjoy. We knew immediately this was no ordinary fast-food tempura joint, we were about to experience something special.
Each tempura dish was served immediately fresh from the fryer. We were started off with a few pieces of kuruma-ebi prawns, perfectly cooked with the sweet meat of the prawns shining through. Our server immediately returned with a dish of the prawn heads, lightly battered again and perfectly crispy. The prawns were so fresh that our server suggested that all we needed was just a little bit of pink rock salt and nothing more. And dish after dish our server kept them coming running down the menu we were given at the start. Kisu (whitting), megochi (flathead), and the most tender, buttery melt in your mouth squid. There was also the most delectable tempura uni wrapped in shiso leaf, anago (sea eel), asparagus and matsutake mushroom. Each one brought straight out of the fryer yet without a hint of greasiness. Just a sheath of a batter acting like a vessel for the freshest seafood and assortment of fish and vegetables I have ever had in one sitting. All deep fried too, mind you.
As the server brought them out she would tell us how it should be eaten. Dipped in a little rock salt, or in a little bit of the sauce mixed with grated daikon radish, or sometimes both or none at all. This was far more refined than tempura we were used to eating. Each ingredient treated so sacredly that no frills, no dousing of unnecessary sauces and extra dishes like rice were necessary. It was all about the simplicity and freshness of the ingredients and each bite was absolutely delectable. And that was when we realised that fried food when done right isn’t bad at all. In fact, it is absolutely beautiful, delicate and heavenly.
We finished our meal feeling far from the greasy, sick-to-our-stomachs-vowing-to-eat only-veggies for our penance. Instead, we felt humbled by what we had just experienced. Yes, we should feel guilty about most of the fried food we’ve consumed in our lifetime. But when you prepare food with respect and humility it becomes an art form and a blessing. Tempura Guru Saotome has managed to beat the devil and there’s absolutely no reason to feel guilty about an entirely fried food meal at Mikawa Zezankyo. Instead, it’s an absolute blessing and a privileged experience.