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Tempura is a traditional dish consisting of shrimp, fish, and vegetables dipped into a batter of eggs, flour, and water and then deep-fried. Although it is usually served with rice and a dipping sauce mixed with grated radish, a restaurant owner in Tsu, Mie Prefecture, just over the Aichi border, came up with a new twist back in 1953.

The tempura was not offered as a separate dish but placed inside a ball of rice and wrapped in nori (thin, crispy dried seaweed), thus creating a tempura o-musubi--a traditional meal for travelers and others on the go. This was easier said than done, though, for there was the problem of how to get the sauce--a mixture of soy sauce, mirin (sweet sake), and dashi (stock)--inside the ball of rice. Tempura without this seasoning would taste too bland. And if the tempura was dipped in sauce beforehand, the extra liquid would cause the o-musubi to fall apart.

So the shop tried adding the sauce and seasoning to the batter prior to deep-frying the tempura. This seemed to work much better. All the flavors were there, and the rice ball held together after being pressed in one's hands.

A much more difficult problem remained, however. The secret to good-tasting tempura is the delicate crispiness that comes from having just been pulled from the hot cooking oil. An o-musubi, though, is prepared more for convenience than freshness. It would be fine if the tempura o-musubi were eaten just after it was prepared, but if one were to follow the normal custom of eating o-musubi much later in the day, the hardened tempura oil inside would make it rather unappetizing.

Given the wealth of natural spices and flavors available in Japanese cuisine, though, the tempura shop owner knew a carefully balanced mixture could be added to the batter that would provide sufficient lift for the tempura, even when consumed hours later. For instance, one could try mitsuba (Japanese wild chervil), shiso (beefsteak plant leaf), togarashi (cayenne pepper), or yuzu-no-kawa (chopped citron peel), in addition to the normal sauce and grated radish. The owner experimented for three years before settling on the "perfect" formula. The owner admits using mitsuba and some form of sauce, but the full list of ingredients, unchanged for over 40 years, is a well-kept secret--the pride of its creator.

While born across the Aichi border in the city of Tsu, this unique o-musubi has now taken root as a Nagoya delicacy. The shop visited for this article makes approximately 6,000 tempura rice balls a day with the same recipe that it has been using since its opening.

The flavor is a tasty and delicate blend of shrimp and specially seasoned batter, fried crisp in fresh, high-quality oil; rice that is formed into balls with hands dipped in salted water; and nori, which complements the shrimp.

Once the final recipe came into being, the name of the new creation was almost obvious: tenmusu.

(Douglas Braat)

Making Tenmusu Yourself
  1. You'll need fresh shrimp (a small variety known as akasha is used at the restaurant) and vegetables with light but distinct flavors, such as mitsuba. Peel the shells off the shrimp and finely mince the vegetables.
  2. Mix into a batter made of flour, eggs and iced water. Add sauce and seasonings as desired.
  3. Pour fresh, high-quality vegetable oil into a pan for deep-frying, and heat it to 170-180oC(340-360oF). Carefully place clusters of three battered shrimp, one cluster at a time, into the hot oil. Let them "swim" for a few moments. Then gradually remove and place them onto a rack to allow the oil to drain.
  4. Dip your hands in salted water, take enough freshly cooked rice to create a shape slightly larger than a golf ball, placing a cluster of shrimp tempura inside.
  5. Wrap a narrow strip of nori around the rice ball, and the tenmusu is ready to eat.
  6. Tenmusu are often served with a kyarabuki (pickled coltsfoot) garnish.

* To maintain optimum oil temperature, add the shrimp clusters slowly, one at a time.
* Since the flavor of tenmusu is delicate, enjoy them with a mildly salty-sweet garnish.