In France, autumn is the time for the chestnut harvest; in India, it’s Diwali, the festival of lights. Here in New York City, where Quartz’s office is located, it’s pumpkin spice everything. I decided I could do better this year by borrowing a seasonal specialty from Japan.
Deep-fried maple leaves are a popular autumnal snack in Japan’s Minoh Park, a tree-covered valley and tourist destination on the Northern outskirts of Osaka. Minoh Park is famous for its foliage in November, when the momiji, as Japanese maple trees are known, are a splendid red. That’s also when shops and restaurants in the park sell momiji tempura, a snack that reportedly tastes crispy and sweet and not at all leaf-like.
Momiji are a revered cultural symbol in Japan, much like the cherry trees that bloom in the spring. Leaves from maple trees are poisonous to horses, but they’re fine for humans. Like most deciduous tree leaves, however, they are awfully chewy, packed with undigestible cellulose. (When scientists figure out how to convert cellulose into a digestible carbohydrate, tree bark and leaves might become attractive solutions to food insecurity around the world, according to NPR, but we’re not there yet.) For traditiional momiji tempura, the leaves are cured in salt for a whole year before they’re fried.
There are plenty of Japanese maples in the US, and we do eat syrup made from our sugar maples. So what’s stopping Canadians and Americans from selling crisp-fried maple leaves alongside roasted chestnuts at snack stands?
Here in New York City, once the distinctive five-pointed leaves finish their cycle of green to gold, they tend to just become debris, clogging gutters and clinging to galoshes. As Manhattan’s maple trees began their seasonal show of color, it seemed worth trying to turn them into something more. So, in the spirit of Quartz’s complete guides, I set out to learn how to make my own momiji tempura.
I recruited a friend and headed straight for the Japanese maples on the south end of Central Park, in the shadow of the Plaza Hotel, but their leaves were still green—and they weren’t stiff enough, we suspected, to hold up to being battered and fried. We plucked crispier, colored ones from a sugar maple instead, resigned to the impossibility of truly recreating Japanese momiji tempura.
The recipe that follows is decidedly American.
After finding the leaves, we had to figure out how to make the perfect tempura batter. The first source I consulted was the only one that specifically mentioned momiji tempura: Blogger James Wong, who made up his own recipe, mixed plain flour, cornstarch, and ginger beer together to coat the leaves. We did that, too.
Traditional tempura batter is supposed to contain egg yolks, flour, and cold water, but carbonated beverages, such as club soda or ginger beer, are a genius trick to make the batter light and airy.
We also threw in some sesame seeds, since it looks like that’s what the momiji tempura pros do:
For deep-frying, the oil (canola in our case) needs to be around 350 degrees Fahrenheit—the way to gauge this without a thermometer is to drop a small piece of food or batter in the oil. If it sinks briefly before popping up to the surface, you’re ready to fry.
The way the leaves rose to the top made it necessary to flip them over during cooking to brown both sides.
After cooking about 20 leaves, we fried some apples and squash for variety’s sake.
The squash fritters were rich and savory, and we might have taken the time to make a dipping sauce to enjoy them with if we hadn’t been so preoccupied with getting to dessert: maple leaf and apple tempura, drizzled with maple syrup and sprinkled with extra sesame seeds.
Conclusion: This was oodles more fun than carving pumpkins, and only slightly more messy. The fried maple leaves looked beautiful, and tasted like fried dough, or funnel cake, albeit with an odd thin crispy layer at the center. We’d do this again for a house party, and serve the leaves immediately after frying them. After a few hours, they get soggy—though that didn’t stop a handful of Quartz and Atlantic staffers from devouring the leftovers in the office the next day.
With the caveat that the final product may well be nothing like Japan’s famous momiji tempura, we endorse deep-frying maple leaves as an autumnal activity—wherever in the world you may be.