They’re everywhere! Autumn leaves are falling, falling, falling and collecting in great, heaping, colorful piles all over lawns, roofs, streets and sidewalks. Beautiful and vibrant for sure, but what to do with so many little pieces of autumn? Most of the time we just bag them up and throw them away, but today we’re giving you another option. Courtesy of Japan, we bring you Fried Maple Leaves! There are accounts that these leaves have been eaten for thousands of years in Japan, but since tempura only arrived in the 16th century, the truth is they’ve probably been around for a little over 500 years. We’re bringing you an updated modern version created by James Wong, a chef who wanted to try the treat, but was nowhere near Japan. His version is made with maple leaves, pumpkin and fig.
Before we delve into the history of these airy delicacies, let’s take a look at why fall leaves are so abundant and colorful. Native Americans once believed that the beautiful colors arrived when the hunters killed the Great Bear in the Sky and the celestial beast was cooked to feed the tribes. The red was from the blood flowing down onto the trees and the yellow was from the bear’s fat splashing out of the pot in which it was cooking. Today we know that science is the reason for colors of the season.
Throughout most of the year leaves are green due to the pigment chlorophyll, which allows them to carry out the process of photosynthesis. The pigments carotene and xanthophyll (orange and yellow) are also present and help the leaves absorb sunlight. When summer is ending, the leaves stop producing chlorophyll because of the dwindling sunlight. This allows the orange and yellow of the carotene and xanthophyll to take over and be seen. The red leaves are more difficult to explain. The red color comes from anthocyanins and only some leaves actually produce these. Scientists believe, but are not entirely sure, that the anthocyanins “protect the leaves from excess sunlight and enable the trees to recover any last remaining nutrients.”
So that’s why the leaves are lovely, but how did they become tasty? The fact is, they aren’t really tasty at all. In fact, they have little or no taste. It’s the tempura batter in the recipe that really gets your taste buds going. Tempura arrived in Japan most likely through Spanish and Portuguese missionaries in the 16th century who brought with them a tradition of frying foods in oil. At that time and throughout the Edo period (1603-1868), tempura actually referred to two different dishes: fish fried in oil and served in broth and fish and vegetables covered in batter and fried. Eventually, tempura came to mean exclusively the batter-fried meal we know today.
Although we have no written evidence of ancient fried maple leaves and only word of mouth accounts of its production passed down over generations, it isn’t hard to imagine a fried-foods aficionado looking around at the brightly colored detritus and thinking, “If I cover this in some batter and fry it up, this could be delicious!” Today, the crispy snack is called momiji and it is very popular in Northern Japan. The leaves are covered in salt or sometimes left to soak in salt barrels for up to a year before being fried in a tempura batter made with sugar and sesame. It may sound strange to those of us who have never tried this snack, but who are we to judge? In fact, there are any number of fried treats that may tickle the palate or cause one to scratch his or her head, depending on the taste buds. In America, for example, you can find fried candy bars (here’s to Snickers!), cheeseburgers and even tequila! (We are excluding mention here of any health-related issues. Word to the wise: eat at your own risk!)
In summary, we should all just agree that fried maple leaves are really a vegetable and therefore healthy. And after all, can you think of any better way to get a true taste of fall?
Maple Leaf, Pumpkin and Fig Tempura
*Recipe adapted from James Wong on Homegrown Revolution.
The ingredient amounts are not exact and may take some experimentation.
- Golden syrup (substitute: light corn syrup and molasses in a 2:1 ratio)
- Sliced pumpkin
- Sliced figs
- Maple leaves
- Sunflower oil
- Black sesame seeds (optional)
- ½ cup of flour
- 1 tablespoon of corn flour
- 7 ounces of ICE COLD ginger beer or water
- Cut the pumpkin into thin slices, removing the skin from each slice.
- Slice the figs in half.
- Brush the leaves, pumpkin slices and figs with the golden syrup or substitute mixture.
- Prepare the tempura batter by sifting the dry ingredients into the ginger beer or water. The mixture will appear lumpy.
- Dip the prepared leaves, pumpkin slices and figs into the batter, coating them completely.
- Fully submerge the battered leaves into a wok of simmering sunflower oil. It should only take seconds for them to fry and become crispy.
- Fully submerge the battered pumpkin slices and figs into the sunflower oil for a minute or two.
- Drizzle some of the golden syrup and black sesame seeds on top and enjoy!
*For more complete instructions with images, visit http://homegrown-revolution.co.uk/leaves-and-greens/maple-leaf-tempura/.
 Horton, J. (n.d.). Why do leaves change color and turn red? Retrieved October 7, 2014.
 Rath, E. (2010). Food and fantasy in early modern Japan. Berkeley: University of California Press.
 Zarrell, R. (n.d.). Fried Maple Leaves Are a Thing People Eat in Japan. Retrieved October 7, 2014.