Seiju, which serves finest-quality tempura cuisine, is located in the basement of a building near Tsukiji Market. With seating for only 13 customers as well as simple and minimal design, the restaurant has a serene atmosphere like a Japanese traditional tearoom.
As Restaurant Chief, Mr. Yoshiaki Shimizu is a master chef from a rather unusual background. While he originally aimed to be a farmer, his studious habits brought him into the world of tempura.
He says, “Since I was curious to grow sesame, I wondered what product uses the most sesame. Sesame seed oil, I realized. And what kind of job uses the most sesame oil? A tempura restaurant. Because I wanted to know more about it, I decided to work at a first-rate tempura restaurant. To do so, I studied at a cooking school and then entered this world.”
As a tempura artisan, he continued training under the expert restaurant chief at Akasaka Rakutei. But tempura intrigued him. Before he realized it, he was trying to master tempura cooking. After years of training, he became independent from his master and opened Seiju. He stands by himself before a tempura pan near the counter and fries tempura piece by piece, serving them courteously to customers.
Every day, Mr. Shimizu sees and selects foods himself. He looks for seafoods best suited to tempura, taking advantage of locations within easy walking distance of Tsukiji Market. In particular, he checks for seafood selections like prawn, squid, scallops, sea urchin, kisu (Sillago japonica), megochi (Suggrundus meerdervoortii), anago (conger eel), etc.
He says, “For example, shirauo (icefish) are from various areas like Shinjiko, Kuwana, and Akoh. This year, shirauo from Funabiki, Akoh, are the best. Their head parts are rather stiff, but if successfully fried, they’ll make really delicious tempura. However, fish from the same port at the same time of year are not necessarily equally delicious every year.”
He buys fresh vegetables in their best season. Depending on the vegetable, he orders directly from farms and uses strictly selected food ingredients for tempura. He says, “Tempura varies materials by season. Winter is good for root vegetables, but since spring is a growth season, tempura is energized, too. Butterbur sprout is a good example. Its unique bitterness foretells the arrival of spring. We fry tempura and taste-test it prior to serving customers to see whether we can offer it. Serving our tempura to customers only after tasting is our style.”
Tempura frying technique consists of a series of meticulous steps. Mr. Shimizu first puts flour on raw materials, then adds koromo (tempura batter) on them, and places them in hot oil to fry.
He says, “There’s a style of putting koromo directly on raw materials. But I follow the style my master taught me. To prepare koromo, I add egg water to flour and beat it. But I don’t beat too much because over-beating creates gluten that tends to hold moisture, resulting in soggy rather than crispy fried coating. I serve two shrimps at a time to one customer, but I change thickness of koromo for the second shrimp when frying it. This is because the oil temperature is higher when frying the second piece of shrimp.”
In Seiju, shrimp tempura koromo is crisply fried and shrimp itself is cooked with consummate skill to retain succulence and sweet taste. The second fried shrimp is a little more rare inside. That way, customers can enjoy different tastes through two shrimps.
Seiju provides only one type of course menu. Mr. Shimizu fries his selection of ingredients and serves one food at a time to customers. They can enjoy the luxury of having fresh-from-the-fryer tempura “art” placed right before them.
Deba-bocho is a type of Japanese single-edged kitchen knife, which has an extremely sharp edge and is convenient for preparing fish products. In Seiju, this type of knife is often used to fix small fish like kisu and megochi. Knife sizes vary and the right size is chosen to meet the need.
A pair of stainless chopsticks is used for frying. In making tempura, it’s critical for the master to sense how far the food is fried. That’s why Mr. Shimizu uses this pair of chopsticks, purchased from a cooking utensil shop called Masamoto Souhonten. But now, chopsticks of the same weight are no longer available.
This is an indispensable tool for Mr. Shimizu. A ladle with punched holes is used just like a sieve when adding a controlled amount of flour to the batter. This is also used for beating ingredients — such as shrimp and the adductor of surf clams — into batter to fry kakiage-type mixed tempura.
Japanese cedarwood is used to make lightweight chopsticks, which are essential to Mr. Shimizu. Since he constantly wants to use a pair of clean chopsticks, he frequently replaces them with a new pair. The same kind of cedar chopsticks is always used to make koromo batter, and he can sense the batter condition through these utensils.
This tool is especially designed to prepare anago, so it’s a must-have utensil for making tempura. The shape is like an icepick. This is used to immobilize an eel’s body on a chopping block by spearing its head when cleaving the body up the back with a deba-bocho knife.
This frying pan is made of hokin (gunmetal). Thanks to its effective thermal conduction, this pan is ideal for tempura. Mr. Shimizu’s pan looks beautiful because he never neglects daily maintenance. The pan is inherited from his master — the chief of Akasaka Rakutei — who is now deceased.