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Tempura and the Great Portuguese Legacy in Japan

By Ana Ramos

Portuguese merchants introduced tempura to Japan. They were in the habit of eating fried fish during the religious seasons (‘tempora’) of abstinence from meat.

The first Europeans to reach Japan were Portuguese traders who arrived by ship in 1543 to the southern Japanese island of Tanegashima. Over next 90 years years the Portuguese almost exclusively shared commerce, culture and religion and were welcomed by the local people, many of whom converted to Christianity thanks to the works of priests such as St Francis Xavier who was the first Jesuit missionary to travel to Japan.

The Japanese feudal Lords, the Daimyos, also welcomed the Portuguese as they profited from their trade and adopted many of their advanced scientific methods including the introduction of firearms. In time, the Portuguese established a new shipping route that came to be known as “Nau de Trato” (Ship of the Treat), which established a connection between China and Japan and raised Macau to the status of the most important international trading harbour in the Far East.

During that time, Portuguese missionaries and merchants from the region of Alentejo, established themselves in Nagasaki. It was these Portuguese that made popular in Japan what is known today as Tempura.

There are several schools of thought on the origins of tempura. Firstly, newly converted Catholics in Japan ate battered food to satisfy the fasting and the traditional abstinence rules surrounding the quarterly ember days (Latin: Quatuor Tempora). The other school of thought is that the root of the word “tempura” may have been derived from the Portuguese word “tempero”, meaning a condiment or seasoning.

In Portugal Peixinhos de Horta (literally “little fishes from the garden”) is tempura’s close relative to this day. It’s long cooked green beans are dipped in batter and then fried in oil in the same fashion as its Japanese cousin and can be found in restaurants across the country.

There are many other Japanese words that derive from Portuguese including Boro (Bolo = Cake), iruman (irmão = brother), juban (gibão = trousers), kappa (capa = raincoat), kirishitan (cristão = Christian), pan (pão = bread), and tabako (tabaco = tobacco). Tobacco was a key product taken from the Americas by Portuguese sailors, and some 450 years later there are still over 20m smokers in Japan making it one of the largest and most profitable tobacco markets in the world.

Whatever might be the real rout of the word “tempura”, what we are certain of is the Portuguese influence on Japanese culture, religion and cuisine. So, the next time you take a bite of tempura think of those first travellers from Portugal in 1543 that braved a journey of thousands of miles from their homeland to establish the ‘Nau de trato’.


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