THERE WAS a time, not so long ago, when tempura (mori awase - food fried in batter) was all the rage. It was like a party trick. Your hostess in a Berkshire or Oxfordshire village might be rigged up in a kaftan - extremists would kneel on Oxfam tribal rugs - conversation would trail off into oohs and ahs: ooh ethnicity] ah the lure of the exotic]

The reason for its success was obvious. You can cook almost anything in batter and the result is a vigorous blend of flavour and texture that cannot be found in quite any other way - for this is quick deep-frying and it makes flavours explode.

The reason for its steady decline in the West is equally obvious. The decline conforms to one of the principal maxims of cuisine: at any point when something obviously good appears (whether a technique or an ingredient), it will be exploited by the unscrupulous and the untalented. People will go off it; it will die. I am beginning to feel that way about sun-dried tomatoes and chefs who cook with exotic fruit.

In origin, tempura - which is a Japanese dish, but reasonably widespread under different names throughout Southeast Asia - came to the Orient with the Portuguese, whose touch with this technique is part of their inherent frugality and common sense. Cooking in batter, as any cook knows, is a way of extending a limited supply of food or of making it more filling. It also has a hidden advantage: because what you are eating is coated in a crisp, soft batter, you cannot see it. In short, bits you might not ordinarily take to can become quite palatable.

A tempura could be defined as anything coated in batter and cooked in deep fat at a high heat. But that definition is by extension. The real (as defined by Yoko Kobayashi in her Complete Japanese Cookbook, published by Hamlyn) mori awase for four (cooking for more becomes a race between kitchen and dining room) consists of the following parts: fish: 1/4 oz dried bonito (used in the dipping sauce), 8oz slices of squid (the larger the better), 8 prawns and 1 red snapper; vegetables: 1 green pepper, 1/2 sweet potato, 1/2 aubergine, 4 medium mushrooms, 2 small onions; a batter made of 7oz plain flour and 2 egg yolks; oil; and a dripping sauce - made of 4tbs mirin (rice fermented in alcohol), 1/2 pint dashi or fish stock (hence the bonito) with dried seaweed, 4tbs soy sauce and one slice from a large radish.

At this point you will probably have given up and concluded that tempura is not for you. You would be wrong. The fact is, you do not need to make Japanese tempura or use Japanese ingredients. All you need is a little imagination, a few simple notions and practice. After that, anything goes.

The following short guide may help.

First, the batter. Making the right batter is a simple matter. Getting it wrong is an equally simple matter. A bad batter is one that does not adhere to the ingredient it is supposed to cover (which means it is too thin), or one that comes apart while that which it covers is being cooked (meaning it is improperly bound). Observe a few simple rules: sift the flour carefully; when adding the flour to the liquid (water/

milk/egg), the batter should be mixed very quickly. Do not be fanatical about small lumps. If you stir too long you will find the batter becomes gooey.

Next, the oil. Vegetable oil is preferred. Shortening does not work. Neutral-tasting oil is required, which is why olive or sesame seed oils are out. Do not allow the oil to be used too often. Do not re-use oil for other kinds of dishes (it retains flavours in treacherous fashion). Make sure, while you are frying, that you remove all the bits of batter that have dropped off into the oil. The correct temperature is 350- 400F. If you have an electric fryer, this temperature can be registered; if you do not, it is a medium-to-high flame.

All the ingredients have to be washed carefully, sliced into an appropriate shape and, above all, dried with the utmost care. Left-over water on fish or vegetables is the cause of many a disaster. Almost any vegetable can be tempura fried. Especially good are cauliflower flowerlets, broccoli, asparagus tips, sliced parsnips, Jerusalem artichokes. So can all fish, though shrimps and prawns (de-veined, peeled and with just the tails left on) are especially well fitted. Meat, too, can be treated in the same way, especially pork or chicken.

The technique for cooking is that each piece must be put in separately and kept from touching in the oil - hence cook at most four or five at a time. They are dipped in the batter, turned carefully, checked to make sure the batter has stuck and then lowered into the oil. Nothing is precooked, so the cooking time is determined by the size of the ingredient, which is why careful slicing (each tempura should be about two inches long, or the size of a large-ish prawn) is important. Each bit should be dried of excess oil and either served immediately or kept hot.

All require some reasonably spicy or exuberant dipping dish to counter the oiliness. Here imagination comes in: onion, salt or salty sauces, honey, good mustards, horseradish, all come to mind. The basic overall flavour should be salt, sweet and sharpish.