|Chris and I at Tempura Benkei, in our aprons|
"I'll have that last one," I said, nodding, pointing at the line on the menu and proffering my 1000 yen note. "Arigatoo gozaimasu" (thanks), and the transaction was done. The girl led me to a sort of cupboard with a sliding door behind which two tables each with four chairs stood in close proximity and motioned me to go in there. I squeezed in, pouring myself some O-cha (green tea) from a thermos flask into one of the teacups without handles. Jazz was playing softly as background music and there was a bell to push on the table if I needed assistance. My meal arrived very promptly on a lacquer tray. "Hai!" said the girl, meaning "yes!" or "bitte schoen." On a smaller tray were little receptacles for salt, toothpicks, cayenne pepper and soy sauce as optional extras; my meal consisted of breaded chicken with thinly shredded cabbage and mayonnaise, rice and a bowl of pickles. Before I'd finished, some business men squeezed in at the adjoining table in my cupboard and started smoking, so I didn't linger.
Supper, as illustrated in these photos, was a slightly more formal affair, with five of the people Chris has been working with this week. We were treated to this meal at "the best tempura restaurant in Tokyo," according to Hayato, who led us there from the hotel in a taxi. It is called Tempura Benkei, Benkei being a character in the Noh or Kabuki plays of old. This place too was accessed by way of narrow stairs, going up, not down. It's apparently typical for restaurants to offer small rooms to private parties, one above the other, in the narrow older buildings of Tokyo. We had our own chef and we sat in a semicircle to watch him work. Tempura means coating foods in batter and deep frying them, a cooking method introduced from Europe in the 17th / 18th century (the Edo period). In those days the fish came fresh from the nearby riverside fish market. It has to be fresh still, because you eat some of it raw. White aprons were put round our necks before we tackled this meal.
Our starters on an oblong tray were a square of fish paste, a piece of marinated (but still raw) octopus (you can see what it is from the suckers) and a slice of radish. A green salad and wasabi paste was provided, but we kept that aside for the sauce to go with the fried items, that could also be dipped into salt or have lemon dripped on them. The chef started beating the egg and water in a metal bowl with a giant pair of chopsticks, stirring in flour to make the batter, with a pile of uncooked fish, prawns and vegetables on wooden slatted trays beside him.
We began with a battered shrimp and a piece of raw fish and thereafter worked through two or three kinds of battered white fish, a sardine complete with its head, a big prawn, a thick slice of sweet potato, some greens, a big mushroom, a "devil's tongue" and a spear of asparagus, all of these vegetables likewise battered and deep fried. As honoured guests, Chris and I were each given a keyring with a plastic battered shrimp as a momento and in case we hadn't had enough batter, or so as not to waste the leftovers at the end, each member of the party was given a bag of bits of batter to take home with us as well. To drink, we were served beers, small glasses of colourless Sake and, at the end, some tea. When we thought, too full to move, that we had finished our meal, bowls of fried rice and soup were brought in as an extra course. The dessert, finally, was very good quality melon and strawberries with a dash of cream.
Our conversation with the Japanese gentlemen was lively and interesting. We got back to the hotel from Mitsukoshimae station on the Metro.