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The Origin of Japanese Tempura (bbc.com)
189 points by lukeinator42 7 months ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 69 comments

Portuguese loanwords in Japanese are interesting because, unlike other Western word imports, a lot of them have been around long enough, and thoroughly integrated into the culture and writing system, that a number of them are assumed to be Japanese or Sino-Japanese words by most all native speakers.

Tenpura (commonly seen as 天麩羅 or 天婦羅) is one example, but also karuta (a card game, commonly 歌留多 or 加留多) and konpeitō (a confection, commonly 金平糖). The the case of karuta, at least, it feels enough like a regular Japanese word that it undergoes a morphophonological transformation (rendaku e.g. uta-garuta) typically reserved for the native Japanese lexicon (i.e. not Sino-Japanese or other loanwords).

Kanji are not commonly used for any of those words. However, they are typically rendered in hiragana, which is usually reserved only for native Japanese words.

Tabako (タバコ、たばこ、煙草) is another well-entrenched Portuguese loan, with particularly wacky kanji: they mean "smoke grass", which is reasonable enough, but you'd never guess the characters are read "tabako".

煙草 is ateji which in this case means that the characters are read that way only for that word.

The other kind of ateji is when kanji are used like an alphabet eg 亜米利加 (A me ri ka). The second kind is mainly used for abbreviations in modern Japanese eg 米 is equivalent to writing "US" in English.

> Kanji are not commonly used for any of those words.

Forgive me if it seemed as though I was talking about usage ratios; I was merely saying that it's not uncommon to see them written in the kanji stylized form; in the case of konpeito, however, the kanji is by far the most common form (probably because the character semantics fit well). 天 also literally means tempura in a variety of derivative words.

But mostly I was just getting at how fundamentally integrated portuguese loanwords are in Japanese in general. shabon-dama (bubbles), kappa (raincoat), kabocha (pumpkin), and other's. Juban (a traditional undergarment) is probably the most surprising.

The writing "天ぷら" is common enough I think. I just got tempura udon a day ago, and the menu was using the kanji.

Are arigato and obrigado related? (edit: apparently not, it is mentioned here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Glossary_of_Japanese_words_of_... )

there is castella too. written in katakana though. But then even Coffee has a kanji spellIng and nobody is going to assume its a native japanese word. 珈琲

Here's some more influence and then weird connections:

- The Japanese word for bread is "パン" (pronounced 'pan')

- The Korean word is "빵" (pronounced 'ppang')

- Both are loaned from the Portuguese 'pão' (bread).

- In Chinese many kinds of bread are called <something>包 (<something>'bao') or 包<something> ('bao'<something>). Examples: 面包 'Mianbao' (bread) or 包子 'Baozi' (steam bun). Note the 包 'bao' sounds a bit like the Portuguese 'pão'. However, it turns out this is completely unrelated and 包 means something more like "package" (or so all the translators and dictionaries I could find claim) so most people believe that this is a false cognate and not a loanword like in Korean and Japanese.

- Despite this, the Chinese 包 'bao' has ended up in Korean as a kind of loan word as well, but because it seems to mean the same thing as 빵'ppang' and is used in similar ways in Chinese as 빵'ppang' might be used in Korean and for various pronunciation reasons in Korean, Chinese origin breads are also called 빵'ppang'.

- The proper translation for 包 into Korean is more likely 꾸러미 'kkuleomi' (package).

- So....Chinese-Korean breads are often called <something>빵 such as 찐빵 'jjinppang' (steamed bun)) even though the correct Chinese name for the Chinese-Korean 찐빵 in China is called a 馒头 'Mantou'.

- However, in Korean, a 만두 'Mandu' is a different but related food, a dumpling, and in Japanese a 饅頭 'Manjou'.

- Going West instead of East from China, the 'Mandu' as a food goes back a thousand years and spread all over the Silk Road, so local variants are found all over Turky, Persia, Afghanistan, Mongolia and so on are called the same thing and may have been the basis for the famous Russian "Pelmeni" and Polish "Pierogi" and various other dumplings known around the world.

And thus the great bread-dumpling belt is enjoyed around the world to this day and was established by explorers, wanderers, conquerors and traders.

...and a Japanese manju 饅頭 is a fluffy, sweet confection filled with bean paste, close to a Chinese bao but quite unlike the Korean mandu.

Mandu, in turn, comes from various Turkic languages, eg. in Turkish they're manti. But in Mongolia, the savoury meat-filled dumpling everyone else nearby calls a manti/manty/mandu/... is a booz, because they borrowed the word from the Chinese baozi instead, but in Chinese this style of dumpling is now called a jiaozi, which is the source of the Japanese gyoza 餃子, and on it goes...

> ...and a Japanese manju 饅頭 is a fluffy, sweet confection filled with bean paste ...

...which is called 만쥬 manjyu in Korean, following Japanese sound. I had no idea the word was related to "mandu".

Dumplings go round and round...

love it!

This hit me really close because a local Afghan place near me started serving 'Mantoo' which turns out to be kind of a meat dumpling which got me thinking about it recently. This post today just fed into it even more.

I have one that you may find interesting. A double parallel I discovered about 12 years ago and so far I haven't heard anyone else mention it.

There is a bird we call `swallow` in English, which has the same name as the action `to swallow`. I looked up these in an etymological dictionary and found that they have distinct, yet similar roots.

The Sino-Japanese word for the bird is 燕(tsubame). The action of swallowing can be written properly as 嚥下 (enge), in the same register as its antonym 嘔吐 (outo).


This reminds me of 設定 (settei) setting, which can be used in terms of configuration, or in terms of setting the scene. And also sounds a bit like setting.

Bao is used all over Asia for Chinese-style steamed buns.

You can get Bánh bao in Vietname, which if I'm not wrong just means "bread bread", but in two different languages.

In Cambodia those steamed buns are called "num bao" whereas regular bread roles are called "num pang", so apparently Khmer has both loanwords.

Also in Thai, IIRC they are known as sanam pao or something very similar.

'pão' descends from the Latin word 'panis', with a 'n'. So it's possible the Korean form reflects the nasalisation that was occurring at the time of contact in the 1500s, while the Japanese doesn't.

Galician and Spanish retain the non-nasal form 'pan'.

I'm pretty sure Korean word 빵 was imported from Japanese way later than 1500s. Most likely during the colonial period (1910--1945) or shortly before that.

As other comments explain, Japanese pan is pronounced not with [n] but with a uvular nasal, which is close to "ng" in English "king", so Japanese word-final "n" is commonly imported to Korean as ㅇ ("ng").

This is interesting! Even in Hindi, the bun type of bread as paõ. Could be very well derived from Portuguese

Even the nepalese across the Himalayas have their spicy Momo dumplings that look the same as Chinese dumplings

Probably a late import from Tibet. Tibet's north is directly exposed to ethnically Turkic and Mongol areas, thought to be the reason of its distribution (possibly all the way from Instanbul!).

In Spanish bread is written and pronounced "pan" (after latin "panem").

Another unusual fact: Panko bread crumbs are cooked by passing DC current directly through the dough:


The story is that this baking technique came about as a necessity during World War II to save energy, although I'm not sure if that's actually true.

Reminds me of how prisoners boil water in their cells -- by passing mains current through the water (with a device known as a "stinger").

When I was a kid we cooked hot dogs with a Westinghouse Dog-o-matic:


The two metal bars down the sides with the prongs sticking out were connected directly to the AC plug (with a switch that turned them off with the lid open, of course). You pushed the hot dog ends onto the prongs and closed the lid. Your household AC went directly through the hot dogs, and 60 seconds later they were done!

A technique apparently also used in China. See these videos by bigclive



What a fun coincidence. Just a few weeks ago I've used "peixinhos da horta" as a way to make my sons to eat more vegetables. Now I must make them eat Tempura.

I must say, I never understood kids not liking vegetables as a meme. When my brothers and I were kids, we'd quickly demolish a casserole dish full of shanghai-style bok choi, broccoli, yellow and/or pink onions, and potatoes baked with some oil, salt, and pepper. You can also fry them with some seasoned soy sauce and a savoury fermented sauce like fish sauce or oyster sauce.

I think maybe many parents do a disservice to vegetables by being a bit too sparing with the oil and salt, but that's just been my guess. What's your intuition about this phenomenon?

I think you have never had a proper midwestern bag of frozen mixed vegetables, boiled or microwaved to squishy tenderness.

IMO, american food doesn't have great vegetable dishes. They're never a main course item and either bland and under/overcooked or loaded with oil/fat.

I think it's because the American style of home cooking is having a meat, veggies, and potatoes all as their own separate thing. Meanwhile most other cuisines tend to mix them together, making it more palatable to kids and everyone.

Vegetables are absolutely delicious when fresh and cooked properly however many children grow up eating overcooked vegetables that come from a freezerburned bag that has been sitting in the freezer for months or from similarly aged cans.

So yes, it is definitely partially due to poor cooking but it also can come from generally low quality of vegetables. This is unfortunately very common in the US. The same unfortunately is applicable to fish for a lot of people.

Not always. The whole system of Indian cooking exists to deliver dishes that can utilise non-fresh or dried ingredients and stabilize them for long hours in Indian summer conditions.

That is why our system of cooking revolves around spices which both disguise the fact that the vegetables are not fresh as well as act as natural preservatives.

The best cuisine to utilise frozen vegetables is Indian - I do not know of any other cuisine that will pass them off as edible.

There are a fair number of vegetables where frozen are better than all but the best fresh vegetables.

Broccoli, beans, stuff like that.

They are picked closer to the ideal time and don't suffer from the shipping time. And then they aren't cooked like canned vegetables.

And of course there are lots of vegetables that don't take freezing well and nothing will stand up to an excessive number of defrost cycles. But frozen vegetable doesn't automatically mean bad.

My three year old demolishes veggies but does have preferences which can be gamed with combo eating. The "cut them smaller and mix with other stuff" strategy is a winner. Another is stronger sauces eg. balsamic or mustard in salads. Or mix with strong interesting components like nuts, cheese, pickled gherkins or less spicy preserved cabbage/kimchi. My daughter loves vinegar so much she often drinks the left-over salad dressing!

Children are more sensitive to bitter, probably as an evolutionary tactic to prevent unknown harmful substances from being ingested. As we grow older, we distinguish more between good bitter and bad bitter and are socialized to enjoy various bitter things.

However, individual variance swamps large group trends so it's easy to find children who love vegetables from an early age and adults who are hyper sensitive and hate the taste.

Just wanted to say I appreciate this post so much. I didn't know tempura was originally Portuguese, and it was also a huge surprise to me that vindaloo, what I think of as a quintessentially Indian dish, was too. A delightfully informative post!

It also explains why vindaloo is often served without potato, which bothered me for a long time. I grew up with my Dad making what he called "vindaloo" that was at least 30% - 50% potato and I loved it. But if you go to an Indian restaurant, it's the only dish with "aloo" in the name without potato. Turns out the name has nothing to do with "aloo" as in potato, and it just means meat in garlic wine sauce, which is exactly what you get at a restaurant.

>Just wanted to say I appreciate this post so much. I didn't know tempura was originally Portuguese.

The name "Japan" is thought to have come to Europe by way of Portugese traders as well.

I love Portugese/Spanish food. I liked port, but then I found madeira. One of my favorite dishes is a a wine pork bean soup. Just awesome food all around. Smoked paparika is a staple in my kitchen.

Netflix has a documentary episode on tempura in Japan: https://www.netflix.com/ca/title/80159732

If you've formed an opinion on tempura only from eating it in North America, I highly recommend exploring it if you visit Japan as it barely compares. There's a whole range of tempura-dedicated restaurants, from fast food up through multiple Michelin stars.

Indeed. I've had tempura in Japan at a nice family owned place (in business for over 100 years) where you enter, remove your shoes and put on slippers and go upstairs to the dining area. The dining area is a bar that squares around the 3 chefs, the father and 2 sons. There is a "small" menu and a "large" menu and after you order a menu and drinks it comes out piece by piece. The final piece I had was a delicious piece of sea eel I added a bit of salt to and that just melted in my mouth. I'll never forget that piece.

One of the big differences is that the "Japanese food" that most people in the US are familiar with like sushi, sashimi, and tempura are typically all available (perhaps along with other types of Asian dishes) at a typical Japanese restaurant here. By contrast, tempura, sushi/sashimi, even uni tend to be in specialized restaurants in Japan.

There's both. Tourists tend not to go there but so called 'family restaurants' offer a wide range of affordable Japanese or Western or both. Some of then are quite good, especially their value proposition.

Like the article says, 'peixinhos da horta' can be literally translated as 'little fish from the vegetable garden'.

And it's not just about Lent. Green beans are generally cut open on one rim of the pod, which makes them look like small gutted fish.

In my grandmas house, we used to eat a different version, made with eggplant slices.

I didn't know about vindaloo!

I never heard before that recipes were used for trade, so TIL. It's fascinating what things in the history of mankind made money. The Dutch trade in Tulip Bulbs for example and many other things that we deem unusual today.

Wikipedia has a good entry on the subject:


I just learned that the Surinamese dish "pom", which is also popular in the Netherlands, is actually also from Portuguese(-Jewish) origin.

Damn it, they're all over the place with the spelling: "piexinhos da horta", "peixinhos do horta"... Get it right, for christ's sake x)

Shitake instead of Shiitake also bothered me. Just use spellcheck?

In China we variously call shiitake-like mushrooms other names: "Winter mushroom" (冬菇) emphasizing seasonality, "Flower mushroom" (花菇) emphasizing the graphical form of cracks on the crown of the most mature specimens, and "Fragrang mushroom" (香菇) emphasizing flavour. For some reason it slightly irritates me that of late western media seems to jump on Japanifying things that are far more broadly produced consumed elsewhere, but that's pop-culture for you...

In Taiwan (possibly China), 甜不辣 is fried fish cake. And it also translates to tempura.

Aside: I always hated the romanization "tempura". The nasal is clearly an n in this word, and I have no idea how they got to an m.

'n' is moraic nasal, which requires the same length of time as all other moraic sounds. How it is pronounced depends on what sound follows it.

It is pronounced with 'm' like in てんぷら (tenpura) when followed by a 'p', 'b', or 'm.'

edit: more fun facts

'n' is pronounced with 'ng' like in てんき (tenki) when followed by 'k' or 'g'

It is pronounced as a nasalized sound of the proceeding vowel when followed by 's', 'h', 'y', w', or a vowel. こんばんは (konbanwa) is pronounced kombaáwa (nasalized á).

This general response is something that people say a lot with regards to Japanese pronunciation. For whatever it's worth, my (native) Japanese professors all pronounced ん like "n," not "m," in words like tenpura, konbanwa, senpai, and enpitsu.

You ears are likely deceiving you. The traditional explanation of the pronunciation rules, which widely appears in textbooks and Japanese pronunciation manuals, is absolutely correct, and also in line with what is normal for human language (e.g. how do you pronounce "input" in normal speech?).

But if you still doubt, I grabbed the first three audio recordings of "tempura" I could find in videos. All are very clearly bilabial nasals (i.e. "m"): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4b6glqZKVBY https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RUslqCQd4W4 https://youtu.be/56PHtLWJh-0?t=159

I mean, it's conceivable that this was a pedagogical technique or a strange dialect of my teachers, but when they modeled pronunciation, it was clearly with an "n" sound. Or perhaps when they spoke each mora distinctly and somewhat separately, they unconsciously reverted to the "normal" pronunciation of ん instead of a modified pronunciation.

Now, maybe having modeled that, when they spoke at normal speed it was an "m" sound and, not listening for it, I never heard it.

(Also: They never corrected my pronunciation of ん, which was consciously an "n" sound. They did correct my pronunciation of other things, like failing to subvocalize vowels between unvoiced consonants (I remember a long and arduous exchange in which my professor pronounced "hito" (人), and I tried to mirror it back, imagining that my problem was in not emphasizing the second syllable enough rather than failing to subvocalize the "i"). And I think that I say "input" with an "n" sound. But maybe I'm incapable of saying "input" the way I normally do in speech when I'm actually thinking about it. :P )

I just did a survey, showing people the kanji. The said tempura but not the way a native English speaker would say, which is more like "Tem pura".

I've heard that in most circumstances you can safely use an 'm' rather than the moraic nasal 'm' such that most people may not even recognise it, though I don't have enough experience to confirm that myself.

the word ‘tempura’ comes from the Latin word tempora

Maybe it's not a romanization?

Sorta, English got it from Japanese, which got it from Portuguese, which got it from Latin. There are other words with similar trajectory.

In this case it is a romanization of an old Chinese-style Japanese transliteration (pre-katakana, so it reads as nonsense) of a Portuguese transliteration of a Latin word.

It's not even a round trip like anime (Latin -> ???->->->??? -> English -> Japanese -> English); but even anime got a proper romanization, it just turned out closer.

My favorite are days of the week, which came to Japan via China and Rome.

/n/ to /m/ transition before a bilabial consonant (in this case, /p/) is fairly common phenomenon in a variety of languages.

Note that this happens in Japanese when /n/ (ん) occurs before syllables starting with /b/ (shimbun 新聞), /p/ (sampo 散歩), and /m/ (sammai 三枚).

Also note that there are regional, socioeconomic, and register differences regarding whether/when this /n/ to /m/ transition occurs in a speaker's actual pronunciation.

even in English.

'impossible' and 'improper' is 'in-' modified by the 'p'.

Rendering ん as "m" before b/p/m is standard per Traditional Hepburn romanization, one of the most popular such systems.

C.f. "Shimbashi", "kampai", etc. It's not an ad-hoc thing being done for "tempura".


If that's true, it wouldn't be surprising due to the phenomenon known as place assimilation. Because 'p' happens with lips pursed, closer to the front of the mouth, the 'n' sound adapts to that place of articulation, creating an 'm' sound.


I know we love those Tempura Shrimp from Costco, that's all I know about it.

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