My Japanese is, quite frankly, appalling. I can manage hello and thank you, but beyond that I’m a mass of confusion when confronted with signs at subway stations or speed-talking waiters. Thankfully, my girlfriend Keeley went to the trouble of doing a language exchange with a Japanese student in London last year. Ordering coffee and asking where the nearest (heated) toilet is doesn’t faze her.
But even her impressive attempts at the local language left her stumped when we went to Hambe, a basement restaurant near Ueno station, where the menus were all in Kanji. We were taken there by Mizuki, Kee’s language exchange friend who’s now moved back to Tokyo. It was his choice and was an absolute winner.
We’d been told to expect ‘Japanese pub food’. What we got was an incredible time-warp feast. See, Hambe’s menu is themed on post-war Japan, its walls bedecked in classic original ads and posters from the 50s. Having given Mizuki cart blanche to order whatever took his fancy, we were treated to an array of bizarre and delicious dishes. I’ll admit I was stumped when the corned beef arrived, but was fully on board when what we believe to be deep-fried sparrow landed on the table. By the time the crunchy frog (pictured above with me pre-eating) was served, I realised this was a culinary experience we could never have had had Keeley not made the effort with the language while I blithely flicked through guide books.
This wasn’t just off kilter cuisine though. Mizuki also ordered Taka-Yaki, deep-fried octopus balls from Hiroshima, as well as Yakitori, grilled meat from Osaka, as well as cardamom infused monja cabbage. This was all washed down with a strong plum liquor on the rocks and plentiful glasses of Japanese beer.
What did Hambe teach me? I really need to give the Japanese phrase book buried in my bag more attention. And that eating frogs whole is a beautiful thing.