If you can’t decide whether you want Asian-style crispy prawns or soothing noodle soup for dinner, make both and combine them.
That’s exactly what you’ll do when making a tasty Japanese-style concoction called tempura udon.
In Lesley Downer’s book At the Japanese Table, she writes that this popular dish is served at noodle shops all over Japan. A flavourful — but not spicy-hot — and brothy bowl of udon, Japanese-style thick noodles, is adorned with two or three fried, light and crisply battered prawn tempura and other accents, such as mushrooms and green onions.
Dashi, a Japanese-style stock made from such things as dried kelp and dried, fermented tuna flakes, is the main liquid in the dish. In my recipe, the dashi also gets flavoured with soy sauce and mirin, a sweet, sake-based condiment.
I wanted my recipe for tempura udon to serve two and that caused a problem when making the batter for the prawns. My preferred recipe makes enough to coat at least 16 prawns, but I couldn’t cut it in half because it calls for one egg yolk, something not easy to divide.
What I decided to do was make the recipe as is, and cook the extra prawns — some would be used in the tempura udon, while the others would be served alongside. I love tempura prawns, so that idea turned out to be a tasty and filling one.
When making the tempura batter, you’ll notice that to make it lighter when cooked, I used bubbly soda water as the liquid. For the dry ingredients, along with all-purpose flour, I also added some cornstarch. Doing that reduces the amount of gluten in the batter, making it more delicate when fried.
When making the batter, I also keep it very cold by setting the bowl of batter in another bowl filled with ice. When the prawns are dipped in that cold batter, and that batter hits the hot oil, it causes a bigger reaction, making it crisp and light when cooked.
To ensure the tempura prawns and brothy noodle part of the dish were ready at the same time, I first made the dashi mixture, brought it to a boil, then removed it from the heat. I then prepared the prawns. When I was about to fry them, I returned the dashi mixture to a simmer, then finished that part of the recipe by adding the mushrooms and noodles as directed below. By the time the prawns were all cooked, the brothy noodle part of the dish was ready, too.
This classic Japanese-style dish sees brothy noodles adorned with crisp and light tempura prawns.
Preparation: 30 to 40 minutes
Cooking time: About 25 minutes
Makes: Two servings
For the prawns
12 to 16 large prawns, peeled and deveined (see Note 1)
• vegetable oil for deep-frying
1 cup all-purpose flour (divided)
1/4 cup cornstarch
1/2 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp salt
1 cup ice-cold soda water
1 large egg yolk
To prevent prawns from curling up when they are fried, make a few shallow cuts, about 1/2-inch apart, into the belly of each prawn, being careful not to cut all the way through. Set prawns belly side down and press on them until they sit completely straight. Pat prawns thoroughly dry.
Heat the oil in your deep fryer to 350 F. Preheat your oven to 200 F. Set a wire rack over a baking sheet. Thoroughly combine 3/4 cup of the flour, cornstarch, baking powder and salt in a bowl. Nestle a second bowl in a larger bowl half filled with ice. Add the soda water and egg yolk to that bowl and whisk to combine. Add the flour mixture and whisk until a smooth batter forms.
Spread the remaining 1/4 cup flour in a shallow dish. To fry prawns, working in batches, hold onto the tail and lightly, but evenly, coat them in the flour. Now dip them into the batter, then let the excess drip away. Deep-fry prawns until golden brown, about three to four minutes. Set the cooked prawns on the wire rack; keep warm in the oven until the rest are cooked. Use prawns as described below.
For the noodles, broth and to serve
4 1/4 cups water
2 tsp instant dashi powder (see Note 2)
10 to 12 medium fresh shiitake mushrooms, tough stems removed, caps halved
2 Tbsp mirin (see Note 3)
2 Tbsp soy sauce (I used Kikkoman brand)
• pinch of granulated sugar
2 (200 gram) pkgs. fresh udon noodles (see Note 4)
2 green onions, thinly sliced
Place water, dashi powder, mirin, soy sauce and sugar in a medium pot, set over medium-high heat and bring to a boil. Add the mushrooms, lower the heat until the liquid gently simmers and cook two minutes more. Add the noodles and cook them until hot and just tender, about two to three minutes, gently pulling them apart as they cook.
Divide noodles, mushrooms and broth between two large, heated soup bowls. Sprinkle green onion into each bowl. Set three tempura prawns on top of the noodles in each bowl and serve the rest of the prawns alongside.
Note 1: You can buy prawns that have already been peeled and deveined in grocery stores. However, if you bought them shell-on, to peel them, hold the tip of the tail of a prawn in one hand. Slip the thumb of your other hand under the shell between its swimmerets (little legs). Pull off the shell, but leave the very tip of the tail in place. With a small paring knife, make a lengthwise slit along the back of the shrimp. Now pull out, or rinse out with cold water, the dark vein.
Note 2: Instant dashi powder is a bonito-flavoured (dried, fermented tuna flakes) seasoning sold in small boxes at Japanese food stores, such as Fujiya in Victoria, located at 3624 Shelbourne St. The brand I used was Shimaya dashi-moto. One packet of it contained the 2 tsp I used in this recipe. You can also find dashi powder at some supermarkets.
Note 3: Mirin, a sweet, sake-based condiment, is sold at Japanese food stores and in the Asian foods aisle of most supermarkets.
Note 4: Fresh udon noodles are sold in the Asian foods aisle of some supermarkets and at Japanese food stores. I used Nama Udon brand.
Eric options: If you don’t like prawns, the tempura batter could also be used to coat sliced vegetables, such as peppers, yams, onion, broccoli and zucchini. They take the same time to fry as the prawns and could be used in place of them in the tempura udon.
Eric Akis is the author of eight cookbooks. His columns appear in the Life section Wednesday and Sunday.