Kyoto Ryokan: Kyoto Summer Hamo Cuisine at Gion Hatanaka

This entry is part 1 of 2 in the series Kyoto Ryokan

– WE DON’T RECOMMEND STAYING AT HATANAKA, IT IS OVERPRICED AND THE SERVICE IS BAD. THIS ARTICLE IS TO INTRODUCE HAMO CUISINE, NOT TO RECOMMEND HATANAKA RYOKAN. –

Kyoto Ryokan: Kyoto Summer Hamo Cuisine at Gion Hatanaka (鱧料理)

Kyoto Ryokan: Kyoto Summer Hamo Cuisine at Gion Hatanaka (鱧 はも 料理)

Mid-summer is the time for the most important festival in Kyoto, the Gion Festival. This festival is informally known as the Hamo Festival because the hamo, or conger pike eel is in season at this time.

Is the meat of the hamo especially tasty? No. But hamo is deeply loved in Kyoto and quite expensive.


We were kindly given an insiders view of the preparation of hamo ryori in the kitchen of one of Kyoto’s best ryokan, Gion Hatanaka by the owner Seiji Hatanaka and chief chef Yoshihiko Yano.

Fresh Seafood in Ancient Kyoto
The ancient capital of Kyoto is landlocked and of course it is a very, very rare Japanese that does not love to eat fish. With the seat of the government of the country in Kyoto, financial rewards to get fish to the capital market would be many.

Live Hamo in the Kitchen
Kyoto Ryokan: Kyoto Summer Hamo Cuisine at Gion Hatanaka (鱧 はも 料理)

Saba (Mackerel)
From the Sea of Japan, the Saba Kaido (Mackerel Highway) was developed to bring pickled mackerel sushi (sabazushi) to Kyoto. This was accomplished by porters literally carrying the carefully packaged sushi on their backs for several days along a ‘highway’ (foot path) through forests and mountains. (see this article for more about sabazushi)

Sabazushi is tasty and a longtime favorite, but live fish from the sea was another matter entirely.

Hamo (Conger Pike Eel)
The hamo is about as strong as it is ugly and this meant that it could survive several days journey to Kyoto in saltwater filled baskets — in midsummer. The hamo is a fighter, a survivor! When I see a hamo, I think, ‘kick boxer’ — industrial strength tough.

The best hamo come from the sea around Awaji Island and the Inland Sea. Hamo is said to taste best after the rainy season which lasts about one month and ends a few days before the Gion Festival’s climax parade of floats on July 17.

As fresh fish was expensive, the commoners that were able to afford fish mainly ate dried fish that had been preserved at the seaside then transported to Kyoto.

The other side of the story is the chefs of Kyoto.

The meat of the hamo is rather bland and the fish is bony to the extent that one wonders if there is a fish with more bones in all the seven seas. The trick is to use ones noggin to improve upon limited resources and this is of course the hallmark of the Japanese people.

Hamo on the Cutting Board
Kyoto Ryokan: Kyoto Summer Hamo Cuisine at Gion Hatanaka (鱧 はも 料理)
note: the hamo is dead before being pegged through the head, as opposed to being ‘pegged’ to death.

Cleaning the Hamo
Kyoto Ryokan: Kyoto Summer Hamo Cuisine at Gion Hatanaka (鱧 はも 料理)

Hamo Cleaned
Kyoto Ryokan: Kyoto Summer Hamo Cuisine at Gion Hatanaka (鱧 はも 料理)
The meat, guts and spine will all be used in hamo ryori, only the head will be discarded.

Bones
The bones of the hamo are situated and distributed throughout the flesh in such a way that removal is just not an option. Some fish, with small, soft and thin bones are eaten bones, head, guts, meat and all. The hamo bones are thick and heavy though, so, this is not feasible.

Chefs solved the problem by drawing upon Japan’s sword culture. A special purpose knife was developed for slicing the bones in the flesh so that it could be eaten. The goal of an adept chef is to put down 26 slices per 3 cm of hamo. That leaves each slice of flesh (and bone) about 1 mm in width! The hamo is 1-2 meters in length, so this involved a whole lot of cutting! This slicing technique is called honegiri in Japanese, literally ‘bone cutting’. (see video below)

Hamo Knife Comparison
Kyoto Ryokan: Kyoto Summer Hamo Cuisine at Gion Hatanaka (鱧 はも 料理)
The knife on the left is a sashimi knife and on the right is the hamo honegiri knife.

Hamo and Honegiri Knife
Kyoto Ryokan: Kyoto Summer Hamo Cuisine at Gion Hatanaka (鱧 はも 料理)

Hamo Honegiri
Kyoto Ryokan: Kyoto Summer Hamo Cuisine at Gion Hatanaka (鱧 はも 料理)
The meat and bones are sliced and the skin is left intact. The bones are substantial enough that slicing through them produces a very audible sound.

Hamo Honegiri
Kyoto Ryokan: Kyoto Summer Hamo Cuisine at Gion Hatanaka (鱧 はも 料理)

Hamo Honegiri
Kyoto Ryokan: Kyoto Summer Hamo Cuisine at Gion Hatanaka (鱧 はも 料理)
This is precision work for a skilled professional. The skin must be untouched by the knife.

Cutting the Hamo
Kyoto Ryokan: Kyoto Summer Hamo Cuisine at Gion Hatanaka (鱧 はも 料理)
Finally, the hamo is cut into bite sized pieces.

Variety of Flavors and Textures
Expert slicing takes care of the bones, next is how to deal with the unremarkable taste of the hamo flesh itself. The hamo flesh is a base to which other flavors and textures are layered upon. Variety is the strategy here.

Be sure to see the videos below for a look at the preparation techniques in detail.

Hatanaka’s Hamo Ryori Dishes
Otsukuri (sashimi) Hamo is not actually eaten raw, it is blanched, chilled and served in the manner of sashimi.
Suimono (soup) Hamo is dusted with kuzu (starch) and boiled and served in a delicate soup broth.
Hamoyaki Hamo is simply grilled with tare and salt and sesame.
Hamozushi Hamo is grilled with tare is pressed onto sushi rice.
Tempura Hamo and Kyoto vegetables are deep-fried. This includes honesenbei, the spine bone is deep-fried. Deep-frying it makes it edible. Very tasty!

Don’t miss our next article to see the meal served in one of Hatanaka’s beautiful rooms.

Hamozushi
Kyoto Ryokan: Kyoto Summer Hamo Cuisine at Gion Hatanaka (鱧 はも 料理)
Hamo grilled with tare sauce pressed onto sushi rice is a common sight in Kyoto in the summertime.

Video

Hamo Honegiri
The chief chef at Gion Hatanaka ryokan demonstrates how to make Kyoto’s much loved summer meals with hamo. Here he shows how the hamo bones are cut.

Hamozushi
Chief chef Yano demonstrates how to make hamozushi (hamo sushi).

Hamo Kuzutataki
Chief chef Yano meticulously dusts the hamo with kuzu starch and then gently boils it.

Hamotsukuri
Chief chef Yano makes hamotsukuri (hamo sashimi).

English:
English website: yes
English speaking staff: yes
Location and Access: Located immediately south of Yasaka Shrine, about 3 minute walk from the intersection of Shijo Street and Higashi-oji Street in Gion.
Address: Kyoto-shi Higashiyama-ku Yasaka Jinja Minamimon Mae (京都市東山区祇園八坂神社南門前)
Telephone: 075-541-5315
Gion Hatanaka website
Map

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10 Responses to “Kyoto Ryokan: Kyoto Summer Hamo Cuisine at Gion Hatanaka”

  1. Chris says:

    Fascinating and lovely. Thank you!

    You may be interested to know that the French too love eel, at least in the southern regions, and they have their own approach to the bones and weak flavor. They skin the eel whole, cut it across in chunks, and then cook it by various means — smoking is quite common. Once the meat is cooked, it can be peeled off the bones quite easily, and since the spine is left in during cooking most of the side-bones stay with the skeleton. The remainder can be removed with a tweezers, in the same way as you remove the pin-bones of a salmon fillet.

    Jacques Pepin provides a recipe in his Art of Cooking, volume 2, beginning with whole eels. You kill, gut, and peel the eels, and then smoke them; the smoked eel chunks are rolled up tightly (a la nori maki) with eggplant and roasted red peppers, putting the eggplant skin on the outside. This long roll is then chilled and sliced, and served with mustard or something (I forget). I suspect the Kyoto foodies would love it, if you could find a way to smoke fish and not infuriate your neighbors.

    The English used to love eels, generally smoked and/or pickled, in part because a huge number used to swim up the Thames and other southern rivers quite a way and could be gathered very easily, but these days they seem to have lost the taste. Mrs. Beeton has some recipes for those interested.

  2. Nate says:

    I remember watching the original Japanese Iron Chef show and they used this pike eel in one competition. The knife work involved in cutting the bones so small was just incredible.

    Thank you for another informative post!

  3. Jude says:

    I remember the Japanese Iron chef show with eel as an ingredient as well. That was fun to watch and the precision knifework in that show was incredible.
    Those knives look beautiful.

  4. Lori says:

    That hamozushi looks so good. And it was really interesting to watch it and the other dishes being prepared in the video, great work!

  5. nuria says:

    Now I know why you live so many years! You eat the best food and your way of cooking is amazing! Tell me what you eat and I’ll tell you who you are!!! Your food is so neat! When you say it’s hard to find someone that doesn’t like fish in Japan… you should see how it is here: kids don’t “like” fish in Spain… and we do have it in our diet, but they rather have meat :(

  6. [...] shops in the neighborhood. As she lived in the neighborhood for two years when she worked at Gion Hatanaka, she has many. Last we dropped into Kagizen Yoshifusa, a shinise known for it’s kuzu based [...]

  7. elizabeth says:

    I feasted on Hamo last night and wow….I am a fan!

  8. [...] hamo tempura! This post contains material from an earlier post about names of sea fish. Also see this post in [...]

  9. Jacek says:

    As a child when vacationing on the Baltic Coast in Poland I remember fisherman dragging baskets or sacks with eels wriggling in them. They would typically smoke them untill they were tender and fat, or chop them into 3″ chunks and pan fry right on the beach! They were wonderful. There is a scene in the “Boy with the tin drum” -by Gunther Grass with a great scene of fishing for eel.

    My older brother would dive for them in the winter in the lakes and spear them underwater, you had to cut out an ice hole first!

    I will be in Kyoto in about a week, I am looking forward to tasting all the lovely foods and dishes you so eloquently write about and describe with such passion! Thank you for your work, I view y7our site for ‘lunch’ when I get a hankering for Japanese food.

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