In Autumn, Japanese maple trees fade from green to golden-yellow—a phenomenon that inspires those who witness it. Some write poetry. Others make art. In Minoh City, locals rip the young foliage off trees, age it in salt for a year, and then fry each leaf for 20 minutes.
What does a year-old, salted maple leaf taste like? Nothing much, apparently. Instead, merchants use the leaf as an attractive frame for the sweet coating, which is drier and crispier than the tempura surrounding, say, a shrimp. Some cooks also add sesame seeds for an extra pop of flavor.
Vendors first commercialized tempura-fried leaves after a train station opened near Minoh’s most notable waterfall in 1910. Outdoorsy tourists visiting the Osaka prefecture flocked to the site, taking the tasty, iconically-shaped souvenir with them when they left. (The salt preserves the young maple leaves, making them a year-round snack.) The novel delicacy became a symbol of the region, and it remains difficult to find in other parts of the country.
You’ll hear locals refer to maples as momiji, which means “becomes crimson-leaved.” The word also translates literally to “baby’s hands,” but don’t be alarmed: No human babies were harmed in the making of this unusual snack. Baby maple leaves, on the other hand, were not so lucky.
Need to Know
Minoh's maple leaf tempura shops are clustered near the town's most famous waterfall. If you'd like to make your own maple leaf tempura, simply dip clean, dried leaves in sweetened tempura batter and fry in hot vegetable oil.