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Today I learned the word tempura is not Japanese

Today I learned the word tempura is not of Japanese origin. It turns out it’s a loan word from Latin, and it’s connected to a centuries-old Catholic tradition called Ember Days.

This morning, I was up and out of the house early enough to get to Mass before work. I went to the traditionalist Catholic church Kathryn and I have been attending for the past couple months. At first I was a bit surprised to see the priest approach the altar in violet vestments. Lent ended almost six months ago, and Advent is still over two months away. Then I quickly remembered about Ember Days, which I’d seen on the calendar but honestly know little about.

The priest, after preparing the altar, reminded us it was the beginning of the autumn Ember Days and encouraged those of us who are able to do so to fast and pray, in particular — given this summer of scandals — for the sanctification of the Church hierarchy. Since I hadn’t eaten breakfast yet, I thought about the two meat-rich meals in my lunchbox and that I was reluctant to waste them. Fasting, it seemed, would have to wait for a while, but prayer could start right away. Conveniently I was already in a church.

Anyway, after arriving at work and firing down the omelet I’d brought for breakfast, I realized I had a relatively quiet day ahead of me. I decided to use my downtime to do some DDG searches in an effort to better my understanding of Ember Days.

The simplest description I found of Ember Days was that it’s a “mini-Lent” — hence the violet vestments — that takes place four times a year, more or less with the changing of the seasons, to give thanks to God for the gifts of nature. From the first few centuries of the Roman Church until a few decades ago, fasting and some degree of abstinence from meat were required during these Ember Days, not unlike the fasting and abstinence we still practice during Lent.

However, over the past fifty years or so, the observance has waned to the extent that, for as much time as I spend in church, I had not seen an Ember Day Mass celebrated until a few hours ago. One comment I read online lamented that the Church had missed an opportunity in letting this thanksgiving for the gifts of nature disappear at precisely the same time the Western world was developing a renewed appreciation for the gifts of nature. Indeed.

Among the other resources I uncovered was an article with thoughtful suggestions on meals one might eat during Ember Days. That caught my attention! After an intriguing recipe for a medieval onion tart, another suggestion was to prepare tempura or order it take-out.


It turns out that tempura — originally batter-fried shrimp but eventually adapted to other seafoods and vegetables — is not something truly indigenous to Japan. Rather, it was invented by Portuguese and Spanish missionaries as something that would taste good to the locals yet — you’ve probably already guessed this part — would also satisfy the Catholic laws of abstinence.

One of the Latin phrases for Ember Days — I found several, although they all seem to be related — is quatuor tempora, literally “four times” if I understand correctly. It’s believed that the word tempura came from this expression.

Ember Days always start on a Wednesday and continue through Saturday, although, for reasons I still haven’t figured out, Thursday is not counted among them. The way I see it, that leaves me about 72 hours to identify the nearest Japanese take-out. Otherwise I can wait until the next ones start on December 19.