Hamo (Japanese conger eel) is an essential ingredient for summer in Kyoto and Osaka. The Gion Festival, which is a summer highlight in Kyoto, is also sometimes called the “Hamo Festival.”
Hamo are a very vigorous fish. Even when transportation and refrigeration technologies were not yet fully developed, hamo were one of the rare fish that could be brought alive into the inland Kyoto basin. Even now with a well-established transportation system, hamo has retained its place as a typical summer food in Kyoto and Osaka.
Hamo are similar to other eels in terms of its shape and the fact that it has no scales. It is nocturnal and looks very fierce with its enormous eyes and huge mouth which opens very wide. Since it is carnivorous, hamo also have well-developed teeth. In fact, it is said that hamo got their name from words like “kamu” (to chew) or “hamu” (to eat). Hamo grow to between 3 and 6.5 feet long and have many many small bones from head to tail. This makes it nearly impossible to take filets from hamo. In order to eat hamo, therefore, people need to cut these bones into tiny pieces so that the bone fragments become small enough to eat along with the fish meat. Cooks in Kyoto and Osaka invented a method called “hone-kiri” (bone cutting) to accomplish this. Hone-kiri is a highly delicate operation. First you make a slit in the hamo lengthwise to open it up wide. Then you place the hamo on a cutting board with the skin side down. Next, using a very sharp knife, you cut through the bones without cutting into the skin at about 1/20 inch intervals. When you blanch the hamo after hone-kiri has been carefully done, you have “hamo peony” or more simply “blanched hamo.” It is called that because the hamo flesh spreads out and look like a beautiful white peony flower. Hamo peony with sour plum paste is delicious and refreshing. Hamo is also used in various other dishes such as yakimono (grilled dishes), mushimono (steamed dishes), kabayaki (charcoal broiled), and sunomono (vinegary dishes). There is practically no part of the hamo that goes to waste, especially in Kyoto and Osaka.
Hamo is available in other areas of Japan, including Tokyo, nowadays but the hamo in Kyoto and Osaka is truly exceptional. It was Kyoto and Osaka's unique culture and the wisdom of its residents that first allowed cooks there to discover and cherish the many ways to enjoy hamo. Try some wonderful hamo dishes when you get a chance to visit Kyoto and Osaka during the summer.