Ingredients, dishes and drinks from Japan by Ad Blankestijn

Saturday, June 30, 2012


Daggertooth pike conger (Muraenesox cinereus). ハモ、鱧。

A white-meat fish from the eel family. As its English name reveals, it has a deep ripped mouth with sharp teeth at the upper and lower parts of the jaw. The name hamo comes from hamu, an old term for eating, because the fish uses its sharp teeth to eat almost anything from shrimps and crabs to small fish. A popular summer dish in the Kansai, especially in Kyoto.

[Picture from Fishbase]

Hamo is caught in the warm waters of the Japanese Inland Sea, where it lives at the soft bottom or in estuaries. It can grow to two meters, but in practice, only fish up to one meter are used in restaurants. It is caught between May and October and is at its best in July. Large quantities of the fish are consumed around this time. Like eel, hamo contains much fat and is believed to have invigorating qualities. It indeed helps you get back some appetite under the hot and humid summer sky that in July hangs like a lead blanket over Kyoto. It is so popular in summer in Kyoto, that the Gion Festival is even called "Hamo Matsuri."

[Photo Wikipedia]

Besides its restorative qualities, which can after all also be enjoyed by eating ordinary eel, there is a special reason why hamo is so popular in Kyoto. That is because the hardy pike conger is able to survive for longer periods compared to other fish after it has been caught. Kyoto is a land-locked city and in the past fresh sea fish could not be brought there. But hamo formed an exception and therefore was warmly welcomed in Kyoto, despite the difficulty of preparing it. And perhaps that challenge was a not a disadvantage at all, as it gave Kyoto's proud chefs a chance to show off their skills! To remove the tiny bones (3,500 in all!), hamo has to be sliced very thinly with a special hamokiri-bocho knife, without cutting the flesh in half. Better to eat it in a restaurant then try this terrible job at home!

[Tempura of hamo with shiso or perilla leaves. Photo Ad Blankestijn]

Hamo also has a mild and light flavor - in fact, it tastes quite refined. Despite that, except in Kyoto (and Osaka, where it is eaten around the time of the Tenjin Festival, also in July), hamo is not a popular fish in the rest of Japan, because of the difficulty of preparing it

Hamo is enjoyed in the following forms:
  • As hama-otoshi, boiled pike conger: the eel is cut into bite-sized pieces and served on top of ice in glass dishes or wooden tubs
  • As kabayaki, grilled on top of charcoal and then glazed with a sweet soy sauce
  • Hamozushi, as topping on sushi. In this case either fresh hamo or kabayaki is used
  • As tempura, sometimes wrapped in a shiso leaf
  • In vinegared dishes (sunomono)
  • In clear soup (osumashi, suimono)
In summer, hamo is served in upscale ryotei in Kyoto. But you can also taste it in a more economical way: around this time department stores and supermarkets will sell delicious hamozushi, and in the sozai section, you can find hamo tempura!