Long a hit in Kyoto, hearty 'hamo' eel finds home in Tokyo restaurant

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The Gion Matsuri came to a close at the end of July, but there's still time to enjoy one of the dishes most closely

The Gion Matsuri came to a close at the end of July, but there’s still time to enjoy one of the dishes most closely associated with that famous festival. Hamo, called dagger-tooth pike eel in English, has long been one of the Kansai region’s summer specialities, especially in Kyoto, where the city’s most famous event is also referred to as the “hamo festival.”

But you don’t have to trek out to Japan’s ancient capital to enjoy the summer favorite prepared various ways. Several restaurants in Tokyo offer hamo dishes, while a few others have courses showing off the many ways the food can be enjoyed.

“In the summer, hamo is at its best and most fresh, and that makes it such a good food to eat during the season,” says Wataru Takase, the owner and head chef at the Yoyogi-area restaurant featuring his family name, Takase. Takase is one of the few restaurants in Tokyo that offers an all-hamo course menu. “It can just be so tasty,” he adds with a laugh.

Hamo has long been a favorite at the Gion festival, primarily thanks to its famed endurance. “Hamo is biologically a very strong creature, so even a long time ago when we didn’t have a refrigerated delivery service system, they could survive a long trip from Osaka to the inland area of Kyoto,” says Tetsuhiro Ikeda, author of the in-depth website “Ikechan’s Japanese Food Blog.” “In fact, Osaka, where the main harbor for hamo was, didn’t even think to eat it back then.”

Osakans might have ignored the eel for eating, but hamo’s ability to live for a long time in the summer heat drove demand in Kyoto, where other types of fish would die long before making it to the city. In his book “Kaiseki: The Exquisite Cuisine Of Kyoto’s Kikunoi Restaurant,” the owner and chef of Kyoto restaurant Kikunoi, Yoshihiro Murata, writes that in times past, people put hamo in wooden buckets filled with water and delivered them to the city using runners.

“The meat of hamo gets better in the summer season,” Ikeda says. “That’s the peak time to eat it.”

As tasty as hamo might be during the hottest time of the year, the biggest challenge to enjoying it is the thousands of tiny bones found inside the animal. Murata writes that in the Edo Period (1603-1868), people simply used the eel to flavor the stock found in miso soup because dealing with the creature’s insides was just too tricky and time-consuming.

Eventually, someone realized that they could be more or less removed by using a large, heavy knife — called a hamokiri bocho — as long as the chef had the patience to finely cut the entire eel. To watch a hamo deboning video on YouTube is to be wowed by the chef’s dexterity and skill … and then further impressed by their patience. When Takase shows me the total number of bones removed from a typical hamo they take up an entire plate.

Before Takase got around to learning how to get the bones out, he had to actually eat hamo. He grew up in Kanagawa Prefecture, where hamo is a rarity (as opposed to Kansai, where you can find it in supermarkets during the summer months).

“I first had it when I was 18, and it wasn’t that good,” the chef says with a slight chuckle. “I ate it in a restaurant where I worked as part of the staff meal. We didn’t know how to eat it, so we just ate it like regular fish.”

Due to an interest in traditional Japanese food, Takase sought out ways to learn more about the dish (reflecting this passion for fresh ingredients, his restaurant’s winter special course revolves around blowfish). He started adapting established recipes and creating his own hamo creations, getting fresh eel delivered to his Yoyogi eatery daily, from as far afield as Kumamoto. “Thanks to technology, it has become easier to improve the taste of hamo, as it is possible to get it fresher than ever before,” he says.

“The most famous way to prepare hamo is to boil it and serve with plum sauce,” Ikeda says. According to Murata this approach is most common in Kyoto, with chefs in Osaka tending to opt instead for a mix of vinegar and miso. While the plum sauce variety does make an appearance at Takase, the real attraction here, and at similar tasting courses in other parts of the country, is the host of different ways it can be prepared. On its own, hamo can be quite bland, as is often the case when it’s boiled. But with a few additions, new flavors come to the fore.

As part of his restaurant’s hamo-centric dinner, Takase prepares a jelly-like substance containing small pieces of eel, along with hamo sashimi and hot pot. Best of all was the tempura take served with pieces of fresh lime and watermelon on top.

“It can get a little oily when fried, so I thought those fruits paired really well with it,” Takase says of the dish.

Similar hamo dishes appear at famous restaurants in Kyoto and the greater Kansai area, such as Kikunoi. Yet there are a few chances to fully experience the full range of hamo in Tokyo, though the season ends in late September. Takase is one such spot, and is ideal for those seeking a good all-around introduction.

“I’m always thinking of different ways to eat it,” Takase says.

For more information about Takase, visit www.takase-yoyogi.com.

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