Aji WOW: Momiji tempura deep-fried leaves
Aji WOW is my series of unusual Japanese food/drink reviews. 'Aji' (味) means 'flavour', and the name's also a pun on 'ajiwau' (味わう) - 'to enjoy the taste of'.
This time: Momiji tempura.
The city of Minoh (or Minoo, or Mino-O, the spelling's up to you) isn't far from Osaka. It's known for several things, such as the waterfall and hot springs, and the beers made at Minoh brewery.
Sure, other places in Japan have hot springs too. And Minoh beer is shipped to plenty of shops and bars in Kansai. You don't have to be in the city to experience those. So if you want something that's Minoh and only Minoh, what do you try?
Momiji tempura, that's what.
Yes, that is a deep fried leaf. A Japanese maple leaf, to be more exact.
I feel like I should point out early on that these leaves aren't just plucked off the trees and deep fried. (Or worse, plucked off the ground...) They've got to be dried and preserved first. Prepping momiji leaves to be made into tempura takes up to a year.
On the 3km-ish walk up to Minoh waterfall, there are several little shops and stalls selling momiji tempura. You can get mini packs of baby leaves for snacking, or bigger gift boxes to take home. (Sadly, no 'I went to Minoh and all I got was this box of leaves' T-shirts in sight.)
I went with a medium-sized bag of hot, freshly-battered leaves to eat as I walked around. It's hard to resist that sweet, warm maple smell wafting through the air when you're climbing a hill. The day was overcast and a little chilly, so having these as a hand-warmer was also pretty nice.
When I went to Minoh in late September, some of the leaves still on trees were just starting to turn orange and red. To see the autumn foliage at its peak, early November's typically the best time to go.
And if you're in the area at another time, rest assured you won't miss out on the fried leaf experience. Momiji tempura can be bought all year round, even though they're seen as more of an autumn snack. Being fried gives them that autumn orangey-brown colour, which I suspect is part of the appeal.
But let's get down to the actual taste and flavour. I'll be honest: as sweet and warming as these are, they're 95% batter and 5% leaf. Max. They've got that satisfying crunch when you take a bite, and you can see bits of the leaf inside, but it's bordering on 'toffee apple without the apple'.
The bits you can see in the batter aren't leaf sprinkles, but sesame seeds. Most shops mix them in when frying the momiji. They add to the savoury side of the flavour, and go surprisingly well with maple. I did find one stall selling spicy momiji, but I didn't ask what they were spiced with. Mustard seeds, maybe? It's a shame I can't handle spicy food, or I would've tried those out too.
Would I eat these again? Probably. Verdict: 8/10