Autumn is a great time of year in Japan. The sticky humidity of summer is gone, but it’s still warm enough to enjoy spending time outdoors. Best of all, there’s the spectacular show of the leaves changing to vivid reds and dazzling yellows.
For me though, fall comes with one major drawback, which is that for the whole season, it seems like the mixed tempura set at every restaurant I go to is packed with mushrooms. If you’re a fan of Japan’s many types of edible fungi, this is a major plus, but if you can’t stand the things, you might be feeling a little left-out.
Take heart, though, because there’s still a way to form a deep-fried connection to autumn with tempura maple leaves.
Just to be clear, we’re not talking about maple leaf-shaped food, like the momiji manju cakes that Hiroshima is famous for.
▼ Although those are delicious too, and you really should eat some as soon as humanly possible.
No, we mean actual leaves of maple trees, which are then fried to a crisp. Maple leaves are a pretty unusual ingredient, even by Japanese standards, so if you’re in the mood to try the tempura variety, you’ll need to head over to Minootaki Waterfall in Osaka’s Hokusetsu region.
Considered to be Osaka’s most beautiful waterfall, Minootaki is at its most picturesque in early December, when the surrounding trees change color. But while the area is popular for its aesthetics today, centuries ago it was popular with ascetics, as the mountain where the waterfall flows was a destination for many looking to train their body and spirit.
Some 1,300 years ago, one such pilgrim is said to have been so taken by the beauty of Minootaki’s maples that he decided to cook some of their leaves in rapeseed oil, sharing them with other travelers who passed by. This would actually make the leafy treats older than the other deep-fried foods ordinarily referred to as tempura, which were introduced to Japan by Portuguese visitors in the 16th century.
Tempura maple leaves didn’t get commercialized until the late 1800s, but by 1910, the opening of a train station and park near Minootaki brought an increased number of tourists, many of whom were hungry and/or looking for souvenirs. To accommodate them, shops along the trail that leads to the waterfall stocked themselves with bags of the deep-fried leaves, and they still sell them today.
While red is the most iconic color for fall maples, crimson leaves don’t seem to hold up as well as the yellow variety called Ichigyouji that’s commonly used for maple tempura. Getting them from the branch to your mouth is a long process, starting with cooks choosing leaves with a well-defined, balanced shape. These are washed and then submerged in water with salt for nearly a year before being fried with sugar and sesame.
Unlike standard tempura items, which are eaten as part of a meal with rice, the maple leaves are sold as a snack. The breading tends to be a little drier than what you’d get with tempura shrimp or vegetables, with a pleasing crunch and mildly sweet flavor that fans say isn’t too far from Japanese karinto crackers.
Tempura maple leaves are sold all year long, and if you can’t wait for your next visit to Osaka to taste them for yourself, they can also be ordered online. We suspect that, psychologically though, they taste best being eaten in front of Minootaki, letting you feel closer to nature as you put it closer to your stomach.