— 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)
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
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
note: the hamo is dead before being pegged through the head, as opposed to being ‘pegged’ to death.
Cleaning the Hamo
The meat, guts and spine will all be used in hamo ryori, only the head will be discarded.
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
The knife on the left is a sashimi knife and on the right is the hamo honegiri knife.
Hamo and Honegiri Knife
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.
This is precision work for a skilled professional. The skin must be untouched by the knife.
Cutting the Hamo
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.
Hamo grilled with tare sauce pressed onto sushi rice is a common sight in Kyoto in the summertime.
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.
Chief chef Yano demonstrates how to make hamozushi (hamo sushi).
Chief chef Yano meticulously dusts the hamo with kuzu starch and then gently boils it.
Chief chef Yano makes hamotsukuri (hamo sashimi).
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)
Gion Hatanaka website
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