The pike-conger is a fearsome-looking creature, and one of the true joys of the Japanese gourmet's summer (or autumn - more on that in a while). It is written with the Kanji Chinese characters for 'fish' and 'bountiful, excellent', and it has a reputation for living up to its title. However it has not always been thus.
For centuries the pike-conger was derided as a 'cat stride fish', so inferior that even felines would step over it in search for tastier fare. The reason for its unpopularity was simple - the hamo contains thousands of tiny bones.
It was only when one ingenious soul invented the hamokiribocho, a specialist knife that can - in the hands of a skilled user - separate the bones without destroying the delicate white flesh. It may take a chef up to a decade to master the technique, and hamo for consumption in the home are mercifully sold already filleted by the pros.
Hamo is caught in shallow waters along the archipelago west of Wakayama's Kii peninsula, with specimens from Hyogo prefecture's Akashi and Himeji particularly famed.
The Kansai region and most particularly the food-crazed cities of Osaka and Kyoto have long been mad for pike-conger. In the latter, it's preparation has been raised to the level of high art, and Kyoto's most famous festival, the Gion Festival, is also nicknamed the Hamo Matsuri, literally the Pike-Conger Festival', for the copious amounts of the fish consumed over its duration in July.
The commerce-minded residents of Osaka, never shy of rivalry with their aristocratic Kyoto neighbours, claim that the hamo should actually be associated with their own Tenjin Festival, which takes place on July 24t and 25th.
The former capital's admiration for the fish is said to be due to its tenacious ferocity and survival instinct. In ancient times, before the development of advanced transportation systems, fish were carried to the city by tradesmen known as katsugi or 'carriers', who brought fish in large salt-filled barrels from as far away as Akashi Bay and Awajishima Island in Hyogo, and Wakasa Bay on the Northern Japan sea coast.
Most other fish died en route, but hamo not only survived, they often tried to escape. This gave rise to the saying Kyoto no yama ni hamo ga iru! "There's pike-conger in the mountains around Kyoto!". The fish's ferocity is not merely anecdotal, by the way. It is well known that even after the pike- conger's vertebrae has been severed it will still continue to try to sink its razor-sharp teeth into the chef's hand. Another good reason to leave the preparation to the professionals!
Pike-conger is especially good served in the yubiki style where the fish is plunged into boiling then ice water (pictured at the top of the page, at Kappo Nakagawa). It is then often served with ume sour plum meat, in the superb dish known as hamo no bainiku-ae, or with karashimiso mustard miso.
It is also used as sushi, suimono clear soup, sunomono, and sansho-yaki where the hamo is grilled then dusted with powdered prickly ash pepper. Hamo tempura is also outstanding, as is the vinegared Hamo no Nanbanzuke, pictured here below at Kyoto's Ryozanpaku.
When to eat
This is a contentious issue amongst pike-conger experts. One website claims "Hamo spawn in the autumn, so the fish tastes best around July after the rainy season, when it takes on just enough fat". However, word amongst the Kyoto aficionado is that the Autumnal versions are the tastiest.
Where to eat
Kyoto and Osaka are undoubtedly the best places to try it. Kappo Nakagawa and its parent shop in Kyoto's Gion District are specialists.
Hamo no tempura pike-conger tempura and, naturally, yubiki with Wakayama sourced ume sour plum.
If you are in Kyoto and you'd like to try pike-conger at a very reasonable price, visit the Nishikoji Market, aka 'Nishiki', where you find hamo tempura (pictured here) being sold on skewers 'ready to go'.