The first Japanese food that most of us in Singapore will be first exposed to as a child would be Tempura. This is usually served as one of the selection in the family restaurants in those Japanese supermarkets in the 70s like Yaohan, Yokoso and Isetan. So to think that you have specialist like Funabashiya who have been doing only tempura since 1886 would be mind-boggling.
The History of Funabashiya
The name “Funabashiya” comes from the beginning of the Meiji era, the first generation of Kanjiro Takahashi (Ansei 5, born 1858) came to Shinjuku from Funabashi Village (now: Setagaya Ward, Funabashi).
Initially, Kanjiro started business in his family home along the thoroughfare of Shinjuku selling grilled sweet potato to passing traffic – rickshaw, dealers and cigarette pushers.
It was in 1886, Meiji 19, he established a shop called 『焼き芋 船橋屋』”Yakiimo Funabashiya” on the current location of Kadozumi 1 chome (present: Shinjuku Sanchome).
The rest, as they always say, is history.
Fast forward to 130+ years later, Funabashiya now specialises in tempura. It may not have a Michelin star like Tempura Mikawa @ Roppongi Hills, but a star does not guarantee good food and value for money. For lunch, you can still get a quality set fo ¥1,500.
種よく 腕よく 油よく Good Ingredients, good techniques, good oil
Material · oil · technique
We truly weave in trinity
Please enjoy the “taste” that can only be made at a long – established store.
You have to admire the Japanese, when they put their hearts and minds into a certain craft, you will only get the best out of them. In Funabashiya, they are meticulous in procuring only the freshest ingredients and using their own sesame oil in the frying of the tempura.
The craftsmanship of frying tempura is passed down from master to apprentice over the years. This cannot be a fixed formula, but a slow impart of the technique and experience over time, in the preparation of the batter, to control the oil temperature, to determine when an ingredient is properly fried.
The characteristic of the tempura at Funabashiya is in its fragrant “sesame oil”. They use a special order sesame oil made by the “ball tightening” method 「玉締め絞り」to inherit the traditional flavor of the past.
関根の胡麻油 Sekine Sesame oil
Rule of thumb here: if you choose oil, cold-pressed is always preferred. Sekine sesame oil is the finest sesame oil in shining amber. It is made with a traditional cold-press technique called 「玉締め絞り」`Gyokujime shibori’ or “ball tightening throttling” which was passed down from the mid-Edo period. The best cold-pressed sesame oil does not use any additives at all, and uses roasted sesame seeds that are squeezed slowly for over three days and three nights.
In Funabashiya, they have kept with tradition and use only sesame oil from Sekine Industrial Co., Ltd. that uses this method of pressing sesame oil.
「玉締め絞り」What is ball tightening?
In the general extraction method, high pressure squeezing after roasting the sesame seeds caused a burning taste and dark colour to remain in the finished product due to heat caused by friction. Further deodorization and decolorisation of the pressed sesame oil using petroleum solvents are required but not desired as it introduces chemical substances into otherwise a very healthy source of plant-based oil.
On the other hand, since the “ball tightening diaphragm” squeezes over a long time with low pressure at room temperature, no frictional heat is produced. Since it is filtered with fine quality Japanese paper, the original natural flavor is not compromised, vitamin E level in the finished product does not decrease, and resulting in the highest grade sesame oil with an extremely high amber color.
The production volume of sesame oil in Japan by this manufacturing method is less than 1% of total market share. Hence, the high price and demand for this liquid gold.
こだわりの塩 Salt of commitment
They serve a special type of salt of high iodine content that is made from a technique thought to be lost but revived by Mr. Hiroshi Sato, a craftsman in Yamakita-cho, Niigata Prefecture.
Following the manufacturing method from the Manyo period (7th-8th Century), it is a mineral-rich brown salt made over time by boiling down seawater in a traditional flat kettle and then removing the bitterness with dried Hondawara seaweed.
Funabashiya also provides a rich seasoning salt with black pepper and garlic blended in herbs such as oregano, marjoram, sage, thyme, rosemary and so on.
Traditionally, Japanese eats tempura with salt. Tentsuyu is provided too, and can be used with the grated radish provided. For the tempura with stronger taste profile, like ebi, anago, etc, I would recommend the salt. But others like vegetables, stick with tentsuyu.
While eating tempura in these tempuraya (天麩羅屋) can be an expensive affair, one can still find a bargain during lunchtime. These set lunches usually consist of plain rice or “Gohan” ごはん, a miso soup “Misoshiru” みそ汁, pickles “konomono” 香物 and depending on price, sashimi and a dessert. This time I ordered the “Takara” set 宝】天ぷら7品, for ¥1,500 and consisted :
- 海老２ 魚介1 野菜3 かき揚１ prawn 2 fish 1 vegetable 3 kakiage 1
- ごはん rice
- みそ汁 miso soup
- 香物 pickles
First up, the prawn. Again, don’t expect the jumbo prawns you get in Singapore for tempura. Here they used the local Japanese prawn. Great for carbon footprint, but not your childhood tempura dreams come true, more of a rude awakening.
But again, the quality of the batter (light and crispy without the oily smell) and the freshness of the prawn made up the size difference.
Next up, the whiting “Kisu” fish. I have not seen other fish served for tempura in Japan (unless they were a la carte order or “Shun” seasonal specials). I am not so sure about the fish for tempura, I would definitely love to try the cod as a tempura ingredient someday.
The vegetable combo consisted of a piece of green pepper, sweet potato and eggplant. I really loved the sweet potato, a bit like our deep fried fritters that you can get in coffeeshops. Come to think about it, where are they these days?
And finally for the set, one ended with the piece de resistance, the kakiage of shrimps and vegetable. It was made with tiny shrimps and vegetables held together with batter and fried.
I order a couple of a la carte items, how could I not! It took me such while before I could come here and pay homage to one of the oldest tempuraya in the world. I cannot go away without ordering a couple more specialties from their repertoire.
As for the seasonal specials, I ordered the conger eel “Anago” (穴子). I loved eel, both the river and sea varieties. I have never seen river eels “unagi” being tempura-ed. But I have tasted conger eel tempura several times, but I would say without a doubt, this was one of the best one I have tasted.
Simply because the bones were fried to a crisp, and even a child can eat this crispy bones. (Not recommended, just a figuratively speaking.)
Also it was so well deboned, the eel came across to be really like the battered fish in English fish and chips. Pass me the salt and vinegar, old boy.
And their piece de resistance is always the kakiage – and this special Seasonal Jumbo Kakiage ジャンボかき揚 was made with scallops instead of shrimps and rounded off the lunch fantastically. Despite the size and seemingly amount of batter, it was not oily and rather delightful to eat. If only I can put it on top of some more rice and pour the dashi stock over it, it would be the perfect ending. But still I needed to watch my diet.
Reservation is allowed for dinner, but you have to join the queue for lunch. Come after lunchtime (around 2pm) and you almost get a seat by the bar counter instantly. The crowd at this time is mainly housewife, so don’t feel shy when you get the occasional weird look and polite nods when you tried to order in English.
English is almost not spoken, but they have an English menu for the set lunches and dinners. For the a la carte, you have to just trust your instincts if you do not speak Japanese. It was rumoured that they have a waitress that can speak Mandarin, but I have not seen here.
If you are there at lunch, be a good sport, order, eat and be done. Don’t hog the seat.
天ぷら 船橋屋 本店
Tempura Funabashiya Honten
Date Visited : Jul 2018