Good things come wrapped in newspaper. Whenever my family hosted out-of-town Korean guests, I remember the anticipation I felt when guests would reach into their suitcases and grab bundles of gifts wrapped in newspaper. Some I didn’t appreciate at the time like dried anchovies or kelp, but other things like dried squid, I loved as much as my kids adore potato chips. If you had a particularly special guest, they may even bring you cute little pencil cases with colorful shiny covers that were filled with the most exquisite pencils and erasers. The ten year old version of myself was all smiles when this happened.
I am that girl when I still receive gifts wrapped in newspaper. Every month I get a bundle of perilla leaves wrapped in the Gilroy Dispatch from my step-mom. What are perilla leaves? If you have any Korean blood in you, you will know them by their native word, Kaenip, and it is a common vegetable in Korean cooking. So common, that you will find older Korean ladies crouched along Union Street, in Flushing, NY selling baskets of them. You may recognize a form of them called shiso, and they come as garnish with your sushi. The type that Koreans eat has a far more earthier taste, with notes of sage, mint and fennel. They are sold in Korean grocery stores, and if it was up to me and I owned a three Michelin stars rated restaurant, I would have them on the menu as tempura with a side of lemons. The character of the leaves change when they are fried in a light batter, and although they become so airy that they melt in your mouth, their minty earthiness isn’t lost. And when they get a squeeze of lemon, it brings some California brightness to a quintessential Korean herb. Thomas Keller, are you listening?
Don’t be afraid to add extra water to make the batter thinner. It should be more like a crepe batter, and less of a pancake batter.
Some leaves may curl up on you as you dip it into the batter. The different shapes give the tempura added texture.
- 25-30 perilla leaves (Perilla leaves can be found in a Korean grocery store and they are called "kaenip." They look like hydrangea leaves. You can substitute them with curly kale, but the dish will have a different taste.)
- 1 1/4 c of tempura batter mix like Kikkoman
- 1 - 1 1/2 c of ice water
- vegetable oil (Amount varies depending on size of frying vessel. Plan on having at least 2 inches of oil in the pot.)
- salt to taste
- 1 - 2 lemons
- Rinse perilla leaves and dry them thoroughly with a towel, making sure that there is no moisture on them.
- Pour 1 1/2 c of water in a bowl with some ice cubes.
- Start heating up oil in a pot. Ideal frying temp is 350 degrees F.
- Put 1 1/4 c of tempura batter mix into another bowl.
- Start by adding 1 c of icy water to the mix and whisk together. Keep adding cold water until batter is thin like a crepe batter.
- Dip one perilla leaf at a time into batter and then drop carefully into the oil. Fry 3-4 leaves at a time, and turn them after about 30 s when one side gets crispy. Tempura should not be too golden brown.
- Drain them in a single layer on paper towels. Sprinkle them with salt.
- Eat tempura hot and squeeze lemon onto them as you eat. Do not squeeze too much or else tempura will get soggy.