The tasty hamo pike-conger is scary-looking, with its sharp mouth, and teeth like a hacksaw blade. Prized in Kansai, especially in Kyoto and Osaka, hamo is a summer delight, but one that is best eaten in a restaurant because it’s a murder to debone.
Especially good is hamo no baniku-ae, where the boiled fish is immediately plunged into ice water and eaten with the flesh of sour plums. Hamo-shabu, pictured here at Kappo Nakagawa Shijo, is a similar but rather more elegant version where the pike conger is dipped into dashi. If you are in Kyoto, try it at Shogoin Ranmaru or hamo specialist Kappo Nakagawa Shijo.
It is also used in sushi, suimono clear soups, sunomono, and as sansho-yaki where the hamo is grilled then dusted with powdered prickly ash pepper. Specimens reach up to two meters, but the 60cm to 80cm varieties are tastiest.
The kanji characters for tara Pacific cod read simply 'snow fish', and it is at its very finest when spawning in Northern oceans off Hokkaido during the coldest winter months. It is also caught in large quantities in Miyagi, Iwate, Aomori, Akita and Fukushima prefectures. Renowned for greedy behavior, it gives rise to the Japanese epicurean phrase tarafuku - loosely, ‘to be as stuffed as a cod’.
For sashimi it must be extremely fresh, otherwise it is good in nabemono - in our house eaten with tofu in a konbu kelp stock and seasoned with yuzukosho citrus-pepper, as taranabe - and salt-grilled as shioyaki. Particularly delicate is the clear, low-salt soup tara-no-ushio-jiru.
Tarako is the phrase used to describe the eggs of the cod, ie the roe, and this delicacy is often served as an accompaniment to sake. Tarako lends itself well also to fusion cuisine, with pasta, and sometimes mayonnaise.
Anago is the conger-eel, and literally means ‘The child of the hole’, referring to its nocturnal underwater habitat. Ma-anago, caught throughout Japan, is the best tasting. Kuro-anago, a black-bodied eel, the largest of the species, growing up to 1m in length, is mainly used in kamaboko and is found in southern waters. The gin-anago is a short, chubby version.
Foodies visiting Aichi, Nagasaki, Hyogo, Shimane and Miyagi prefectures, plus Kyoto and Osaka, get the finest local anago dining options, and it has long been a favorite in Edomaezushi in Tokyo, as well as in nabemono hotpots. It may sometimes be found lurking at the bottom of a chawanmushi savory egg custard dish.