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  • Writer's pictureMiranda Brown

Eating Tempura, Living Dangerously: Nagasaki 1600 (AS 258)

Updated: Feb 25, 2022

Picture it now

A Japanese lunch appears on a red lacquer tray. Your eyes first espy the cold tofu garnished with wasabi. Then they shift to the stewed vegetables called oden, and then the potato salad flanked by daikon. A few moments later, your brain registers the main attraction. It’s the tempura: a few slices of crispy eggplant, kabocha, and lotus root covered in batter. You grab your chopsticks and decide to start there, while the food is still hot. Picking up a slice of the eggplant, you gently dab it in the sauce, and bring it to your mouth.

Teishoku Box (Photograph by Erin Brightwell)

You bite in and feel sheer delight. For something deep-fried, the tempura looks implausibly healthy. The batter’s there, but barely. It’s filmy, not bready. This isn’t your standard pub fare -- the fish and chips you chow down while chugging beer.

Tempura is an art. Your brain says it has been deep fried, but your palate registers no grease. That paradox is traditional Japanese cuisine in a nutshell: flavorful but light.


By now, you can already anticipate my next move. You think I am going to burst your bubble. “No food origins is safe,” one of you wrote the other day in YellowDig. And you would be right. I *will* tell you about the foreign origins of a traditional Asian food.

Tempura is 100% traditional Japanese, but it has Iberian ancestry.

But there is more to the story than cocktail talk. Tempura begs a bigger question: Why is Portuguese culinary influence so hard to see in this dish?

To answer the question, we must do something different. Let’s play a game of time travel (we should be on Winter Break, anyway).

It is the year 1600. You are a merchant, traveling on a black Portuguese boat. That journey began in Lisbon and first landed in Goa, before moving on to Macau, and then on to Nagasaki. For most of the journey, you have been cautious. You wear a crucifix everywhere you go and eat pork, knowing that all eyes are on you. Your forebears were Jewish converts to Christianity after Ferdinand and Isabella expelled the Moors in 1492 and launched the Inquisition in Spain. In 1536, the Inquisition spread to Portugal before moving overseas to Goa in 1560.

Arrival of the Portuguese (Photography by Leanne Martin)

You finally land in the great port city of Nagasaki, in Southern Japan. In the early sixteenth century, a local warlord, the daimyo, welcomed foreign merchants who brought weapons and the spoils of the Indian Ocean Trade. Catholic priests also found a receptive audience in war-torn Japan. It's 1600, so there are now 300,000 native Japanese converts to Christianity, a church at the center of town, and houses painted white in the Iberian style.

The markets are full of new crops from Spanish colonies in the Americas, brought on the galleons that connected Acapulco to Manila. There’s kabocha: green pumpkins with sweet orange flesh; tomatoes; and sugar cane from the Caribbean (and Canton).

As someone raised in Portugal, you find comfort in these familiar foods. You have heard through the grapevine that the priests have persuaded the Japanese converts to show their Catholic credentials by eating more meat. You laugh, knowing that no meal is ever safe from the priests. As a New Christian, you must prove your religious faith through meals. In Portugal and Goa, you went to the pub and stuffed your face with pork and lard three times a day. You do this in front of your neighbors as much as possible.

In Japan, though, the Catholic fathers are wary of another faith: Buddhism. Many of the native converts to Catholicism grew up on a diet of fish and rice. Some of them had been Buddhists and had avoided flesh altogether. They have had to overcome their revulsion to animal meat when they became Christians.

This is one reason why Portuguese-styled meat became popular: rich stews made with beef or wild boar, simmered with a little daikon and vinegar until the meat falls off the bone. It’s similar to the adobo eaten in Manila, a Spanish colony. Here, though, Japanese Christians call it kujito.

There’s also a rich cake called kasutera. This is how the Japanese pronounce Pão de Castela. Only a hundred years before, the Japanese did not make sweets with eggs or granulated sugar. They had made do with honey and arrowroot. Nowadays, Japanese cooks use sugar in everything, even in mochi. They found that the sugar makes the mochi soft. Kasutera, however, is an Iberian treat and full of eggs. The natives, however, do not have ovens, and use cast iron pots hung over flames to bake.

Castella in Nagasaki 2015 (Photography by Erin Brightwell)

For a real taste of home, you eat fish deep-fried in the Moorish style, in batter. Japanese cooks, who know how to prepare all seafood, quickly mastered that art. They cut their fish in round slices, douse it in flour and fry it in hot oil. Afterwards, they sprinkle it with powdered cloves and grated garlic. They call it tempura.

Tempura (Photograph by Erin Brightwell)

Tempura with Bento Box (Photography by Erin Brightwell)

As much as you enjoy Nagasaki, you’re thinking it’s time to move on -- to Mexico. Things have gotten tense. It’s one thing to have to dodge the Inquisition. But it’s quite another to *also* navigate around unfriendly Japanese authorities.

The Japanese strongman, Hideyoshi, who died two years before in 1598, had despised Catholic missionaries. He scorned the Portuguese, who trade Japanese slaves. Catholic conversion, he thought, was the prelude to Iberian invasion -- the kind that "happened" in Goa and the Philippines.

Since Hideyoshi crucified twenty-six Catholic priests and Japanese converts to Christianity in 1597, your Japanese friends have become more discreet about their faith. Many of them have gone underground.

Their diets also look less overtly Portuguese. Those hearty meat stews, seasoned with garlic and cloves, make people nervous. Christian families know that in a country where meat consumption is rare, beef stew is too much of a statement. It reminds people of the “Southern Barbarians” and doesn’t fit with Japan's cultural matrix, which favors vegetarianism and pescetarianism.

Fortunately, sweets and tempura are different. While Hideyoshi’s confidants have accused priests of hooking converts with cookies and red wine, people in Nagasaki are still making the desserts, confeito and castella. Catholic parents whisper the recipes to their children knowing full well that there are murmurs at court. Nowadays, no one is advertising the Portuguese roots of these foods. When asked, they point to the Chinese merchants in Nagasaki, who have a taste for wheat pastries and fried things. They swear that these foods came originally from China.


My fictional account draws from the life of Rui Pérez, a Portuguese merchant of Jewish extraction. Pérez had sought to lay low in Nagasaki, but Portuguese authorities had dispatched agents to arrest him and bring him back to Macau. From Macau, they sent him to Mexico, where he faced the Inquisition. Accompanied by his grown sons, he died en route and was buried at sea. His sons got to Mexico and fought hard for the freedom of an enslaved Japanese man they had grown up with as brothers. Once successful in their suit, they changed their names and identities, and vanished from the historical record.

Macau (Nov 2017)

Western accounts of the period often emphasize the brutality of the Japanese suppression of Christianity. The suppression did involve considerable bloodshed. In 1614, the Tokugawa shogun banned Christianity formally, before excluding Portuguese traders in 1638 from Nagasaki. Shogunate authorities then hunted down Christians and executed them. Contemporary art depicts the execution of Japanese converts who refused to disavow Christianity. The rest of the community went underground for hundreds of years, only resurfacing at the end of the nineteenth century. Their cookbooks, furthermore, were never published. These historical events have inspired the popular blockbuster film, Silence (2016). If you are itching to know more, take Asian 200 with Professor Erin Brightwell.

Despite these tense circumstances, some Portuguese dishes and ingredients went mainstream in Japan. Sugar -- now a crucial ingredient in mochi -- was one of them. So was tempura. It was so popular it was sold as street food in the eighteenth-century capital, along with soba.

Mochi with Sakura (Photograph & Confection by Erin Brighwell)

Nerikeri (Photography by Erin Brightwell)

Perhaps what is most interesting to me are the recipes that did not survive the purge. Scanning old cookbooks, it's clear that people in Nagasaki had learned at one point to make cheesecake, meat pies, even caramels. They had also picked up a taste for red wine. This fact reveals that Japanese borrowing from Portuguese cuisine ended up being more limited than it could have been. To put things differently, foods like tempura represented an example of the piecemeal adoption of Iberian cooking styles. The contact with Portuguese cuisine never led to wholesale culinary change: for example, the creation of new hierarchies of food ingredients, a change in attitudes towards meat consumption and fish, and a preference for bread. Nope, the cultural matrix remained intact.

Things, however, might have ended differently. The early Christian converts in Nagasaki took Catholicism and Catholic eating seriously. They observed Lent and sometimes gave testimonies to Inquisition authorities about Jewish New Christians (and their diets).

Every now and then I wonder what would have happened had Hideyoshi taken a shine to Christianity. He sometimes conversed with missionaries. What if one of them had persuaded Hideyoshi (or the Tokugawa shoguns) to give Catholicism a chance? Perhaps Japan would have become like the Philippines: a heavily Catholic land? I suspect that Japanese food would be vastly different today. Full of meat, garlic, and vinegar? The tempura would still be there, but what would it taste like?

See you on YellowDig!

Recipe resources: I highly recommend you try your hand at making castella cake. There are many on-line recipes for tempura, I suggest using this one by Nancy Singleton Hachisu from Japanese Farm Food (Andrews McMeel Publishing, 2012). It is not only easy, but also similar to the Iberian prototype. In terms of an Iberian prototype, I highly recommend making berenjenas fritas con miel (eggplant fritters with honey) from Southern Spain. There's also shrimp fritters if you like a heavier batter.


Lizzie Collingham, Curry: A Tale of Cooks and Conquerors (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), Chapter 3: “Vindaloo: The Portuguese and the Chilli Pepper,” 47-80.

De Sousa, L. (2015). The Jewish Diaspora and the Perez Family Case in China, Japan, the Philippines, and the Americans (16th Century). Translated by Joseph Abraham Levi. Macau: Fundacao Macau.

_____(2018). "The Jewish Presence in China and Japan in the Early Modern Period: A Social Representation." In: Perez Garcia M., De Sousa L. (eds) Global History and New Polycentric Approaches. Palgrave Studies in Comparative Global History. Palgrave Macmillan, Singapore.

_____(2020). "Judaeo-Converso Merchants in the Private Trade Between Macao and Manila in the Early Modern Period." Revista De Historia Económica / Journal of Iberian and Latin American Economic History, 38(3), 519-552. doi:10.1017/S0212610919000260

Rath, Eric (2010). Food and Fantasy in Early Modern Japan (Berkeley: University of California Press), Chapter 4, “The Barbarians’ Cookbook,” 85-111; “Appendix: The Southern Barbarian’s Cookbook (Nanban ryôrisho),” 189-95.

Reinders, Eric Robert (2004). "Blessed Are the Meat Eaters: Christian Antivegetarianism and the Missionary Encounter with Chinese Buddhism." positions: east asia cultures critique 12.2: 509-537.

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