It’s a slow Tuesday lunch at Mochiku, a tiny 8-seater, counter-only tempura restaurant somewhere up a nondescript staircase in Ginza. This might sound like a thousand other places in Tokyo, but not all of those other places serve great tempura. I’ve just demolished a glorious tendon: a dozen pieces of hot, crisp, sauce-soused tempura including spring vegetables, but also prawn, whiting, shiso-wrapped tuna, and a whole conger eel for good measure, all served over a bed of rice. Lunch hours are officially over. I’m hanging around to chat to Yuto Nishizawa, who is listening patiently as the customer next to me holds forth on, well, his life, for about twenty minutes.
The elderly customer talks about how he travelled an hour across town just to come and eat here. “There’s lots of tempura places around that turn out good tempura, but they can’t just taste good,” he says, leaning back and nodding. “I go to places to fill my heart and stomach. Places like this.” The old man eventually leaves, sensing that there is no more to be said.
“You know,” says Nishizawa, gesturing at my open notebook. “He was probably hoping you’d write all that down.”
I never tire of watching Nishizawa make tempura. He began his training at ryotei in Tsukiji, before working alongside the third-generation tempura chef of Mochiku for four years, taking over the restaurant in 2018. Deftly wielding a pair of long, pointy metal chopsticks, he drags each piece of fish and vegetable until there’s just enough batter clinging to it, and drops it in the sesame oil. Quiet sizzles. The pieces turn golden, and he flips them quickly, but without haste. No unnecessary flourishes. Every movement does only what it needs to, economical and elegant. The fish and vegetables emerge, cloaked in a beautifully thin, craggy golden batter.
Good tempura is supposed to be light and crisp, the batter made and used fresh to avoid heavy gluten stodge, but there’s a lot of room for variation. Many casual shops, for example, have batter that’s thick, greasy and just a little crunchy to better withstand soup and sauce. Some use just flour and water. Some add a little oil. You could use different oils, or a blend of several – sesame, rice, egoma, canola.
Nishizawa’s style of tempura is a variant on kinpura (gold tempura), so named for how it’s made with egg yolks, and sometimes whole eggs. Naturally, its cousin is ginpura (silver tempura), where the flour-and-water batter sometimes contains egg whites or just skips the egg altogether. He won’t spill all the secrets, but he does share a few things as I watch him make the batter.
The batter-making process is deceptively simple, but in all likelihood difficult to replicate. He fills the bowl with a thin yellow liquid – an equal mix of egg and water – and whisks it for several minutes until it foams and takes on a pale cast, seeming to almost double in volume. “I changed the whisk I usually use,” he says, showing me two whisks side-by-side. “This one with more tines is better for the batter. It whips up more air into the egg mixture.”
Using eggs gives the batter a richer, deeper flavor, but it also produces an astonishingly light texture, especially when whisked this much. He mutters something about meringue which I don’t quite catch. Then he sifts some flour in – no measuring – and whisks, folding it in until just combined. He does this several times, the batter gradually thickening, flicking drops of batter to test the consistency.
Today’s mixed tempura rice bowl has a touch of yuzu on top, the bright, citrus-sharp perfume wafting up as I remove the lid. It is a recent change to Nishizawa’s style, adding a fragrance and lightness that whets the appetite even further. He’s always making little improvements here and there. It’s important to eat fast: tempura doesn’t stay crisp for long, especially when drizzled with a generous helping of his umami-ful “secret sauce,” which definitely contains soy sauce, sake, maybe a little sugar.
The pandemic has changed a few things for Nishizawa – some for the better, some for the worse. Lunch service has finally returned to some semblance of normal, but dinner services are rarely as busy as he’d like them to be. Like many others in the industry, he’s had to raise prices; fortunately for his customers, he’s also taken stock and re-organized his suppliers, sourcing better fish than before. Parenthood also suits him: his son, Little K, is now two, and toddles around as Nishizawa and his wife Kanae run the restaurant, clambering on top of shelves, investigating cooking utensils, occasionally high-fiving the customers.
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