Crisp battered maple leaves, might sound strange to Western ears, but are an esteemed autumnal delicacy in Japan. So in the name of botanical discovery I dusted off my deep fryer to see what all the fuss was about…
MAPLE LEAVES IN JAPAN
When the autumnal chills of October cause the leaves to turn in Northern Japan, it sparks off the annual “Momiji Gari” or “Autumn Leaf Viewing” season. Whole families gather in parks, gardens and rural retreats to take in the sights of autumn by picnicking beneath the stately maples.
There are apparently even guides published as to the best viewing spots & daily weather reports of exactly when and where the best views will be possible on the nightly news. Indeed the turning of the maple leaves is almost as significant to the Japanese as the flushes of Sakura (Cherry Blossom) in the spring. But to me as a greedy foodie this is the most exciting bit….
MAPLE LEAF TEMPURA
To the Japanese the vibrant reds and golds of maple leaves aren’t just a pretty Autumn view, but a delicious edible treat that kids look forward to all year called ‘Momiji Tempura’. Sugared or salted and coated in a crisp tempura batter they are sold by roadside vendors in a similar way to how us Brits would have roast chestnuts – albeit sold beautifully wrapped in little boxes (this is Japan after all!).
Having never actually been to Japan, and with google images as my only guide, curiosity got the better of me so I just had to give these a go myself. I had read frustratingly contradictory reports that claimed that the leaves were either sugary and delicious or tasted of nothing and were there just to lend a attractive shape. Also there didn’t seem to be a recipe online anywhere either, so I have kind of made it up as a went along I am afraid. So here goes….
MAPLE LEAF, PUMPKIN & FIG TEMPURA
I felt to be a real autumn treat to bring a smile to your face as the nights draw in this really had to be a dessert tempura. With this in mind I swapped the normal iced soda water used in tempura batter for fiery ginger beer & ditched the normal tempura veg for fresh figs & slices of my tiny ‘Windsor’ pumpkins that are bang in season in my garden this week. A bit left-of-field I know, but hey so is eating battered autumn leaves…
The first thing I did was to grab a raw leaf and nibble on it to see what I was working with. The flavour was mild and slightly bitter-sweet – a bit like a cross between chicory & over-brewed tea. It was also full of some really unpleasant fibres…but I persevered.
I decided to enhance the flavour of the leaves by brushing them with a thin layer of sticky golden syrup as a sort of glaze. My internet sources described these as being ‘salted’ or ‘sugared’ before frying in Japan, but lacked anymore detail so I figured I was on the right track.
After slicing & glazing I dipped the candidates into a simple sweet tempura batter, made by sifting 100g of plain flour and 1tbsp of cornflour over 200ml of ICE COLD ginger beer & giving it a brief whisk with a pair of chopsticks. For tempura virgins, the photo of a rather lumpy batter filled with floury pockets above is (rather counter intuitively) how it is supposed to look. I promise.
Using the same chopsticks, I dunked the batter-coated figs and pumpkins into a wok of simmering sunflower oil for a minute or two until they were crunchy and golden, followed by the maple leaves which took mere seconds to crisp up. A drizzle of golden syrup & scatter of black sesame seeds later and I was tucking in.
To my great surprise the deep frying process completely obliterated any potential stringy fibrousness in the leaves, rendering them as crisp and light as the batter. In terms of flavour, to be honest a typewriter would probably taste good brushed in golden syrup and deep fried, however I thought they were delicious – with their mild bitterness off-setting the sugary coating perfectly.
Definitely something to repeat, especially with the jamminess of the hot figs and soothing starchiness of the pumpkin slices – maybe even with a scoop of green tea ice-cream? A really fun thing to do with kids & great excuse to get out and go for a hunting for leaves, guaranteed to make an Autumnal walk in your local park something to remember.