Did You Know that Tempura is Portuguese? – The Influence of the Portuguese Empire

Pedro_alvares_cabral_discovery_of_brazil_1500
Cabral (center-left, pointing) sights the Brazilian mainland for the first time on 22 April 1500.
In March of the year 1500, the Portuguese explorer, Pedro Álvares Cabral, left Lisbon and led a fleet of 13 ships and 1500 men to India. Instead of going straight South, and taking the turn around the Cape of Good Hope at the bottom of Africa before heading up the African coast to India, Cabral went southwest. 

India was the land of riches, where spices like pepper made men rich. But southwest Cabral headed, and about six months after leaving Portugal, they dropped anchor in a natural harbor they named “Porto Seguro”, or Safe Port. The Portuguese traded with the locals, whom they called “Indians”, hunted, fished and foraged for food stocks, and held Christian Mass. They built a 7-meter tall cross made of wood, thus establishing their claim as Christians and men of the Portuguese Kingdom. A few weeks later, Cabral led the fleet on to India and riches, thus becoming the first explorer to venture across four different continents: Europe, Americas, Africa and Asia.

Since the early 15th century, Portuguese explorers have spanned the globe seeking items of value and territories to possess. The Portuguese Empire dotted Africa and Asia: Timor and Malacca in Southeast Asia, Macau in China, Goa in India, and what are now called Angola and Mozambique in Africa, for example.

And while Portugal never established any permanent stronghold in Japan, Portugal has had an impact on Japan since the 16th Century, when Portuguese traders turned the sleepy port town of Nagasaki into a bustling center for international commerce. For the first time, Japanese were exposed to tobacco, bread and Christianity.

castera
Nagasaki Castella
While Christianity never took root in Japan, other customs did, as evidenced by words now considered Japanese (see source here):

  • Buranko (ブランコ): From the Portuguese word balancé or baloiço, “buranko” is the word for “swing” in English.
  • Castella (カステラ): From the Portuguese “Pão de Castela”, which means “bread from Castile”, a region in Spain, is today the word for a popular Japanese sponge cake, often found in gift shops in Nagasaki.
  • Tempura (天麩羅): And most famously, this classic example of popular Japanese cuisine, tempura, came to Japan via the Portuguese missionaries in Nagasaki, who would cook up a Portuguese dish called “peixinhos da horta“, commonly green beans dipped in batter and then fried. One etymological explanation, according to Wikipedia, is that

The word “tempura”, or the technique of dipping fish and vegetables into a batter and frying them, comes from the word “tempora”, a Latin word meaning “times”, “time period” used by both Spanish and Portuguese missionaries to refer to the Lenten period or Ember Days (ad tempora quadragesimae), Fridays, and other Christian holy days. Ember Days or quattuor tempora refer to holy days when Catholics avoid red meat and instead eat fish or vegetables.

Peixinhos_da_horta_precursor to tempura
Peixinhos da horta, the Portuguese ancestor of Japanese tempura
And now you know the rest of the story.