Kyoto is hot during the summer. And July is the time of the year of the monthlong Gion Festival, which causes the people of Japan’s ancient capital to feel restless when they hear the celebratory and rhythmic music played on flutes, drums and gongs.
The festival reaches its high points with the parading of the Yamahoko floats on July 17 and 24. The eves of those dates are also particularly festive.
“Hamo,” or conger pike, is a white fish that is a staple of summer in Kyoto. Some even call the Gion celebration the Hamo Festival.
“People say hamo becomes tastier after it drinks water during the rainy season,” says Chizuru Ohara, a 50-year-old expert on Kyoto home cooking.
Caught mainly in Tokushima, Hyogo and Ehime prefectures, hamo is a familiar fish sold in supermarkets in western Japan. “You get energy by eating hamo with lots of fat, which helps people get through the hot summer here,” she says.
A type of eel, hamo has numerous small and hard bones. A special technique called “hone-giri” is used to score the fish when preparing it. Closely spaced cuts are made along the entire length of a fillet that stop just above the skin. The technique allows for the fish to be enjoyed with teriyaki, in hotpots and with a clear soup. Its use is and was so widespread that a book titled “A hundred hamo recipes” was published during the Edo Period (1603-1867). At the Ohara household, the children’s favorite is hamo tempura.
Ohara introduces a recipe using the reasonably priced skin of hamo. At fish and surimi shops in Kyoto, chopped skin from soy sauce-flavored grilled hamo is sold. She matches it with refreshing cucumbers. Some people in Kyoto, however, refrain from eating cucumbers in July, since the emblem of Yasakajinja shrine, the host of the Gion Festival, looks like the cut end of the vegetable.
If hamo skin is not available, fine strips of “abura-age” (thin deep-fried tofu) may be used.
Here is a tip from Ohara on home cooking: “Freshly cooked rice, freshly made soup and freshly grilled fish, are the keys. The meal will rise a notch if everything is freshly prepared.”
It will be even better if a seasonal flavor is added.
50 grams skin of hamo
1 Tbsp cooking oil
1 tsp salt
3 Tbsp sesame seed
2 Tbsp dashi stock
Sweet vinegar (50 cc rice vinegar, 2 Tbsp sugar, bit of salt, 1/2 tsp soy sauce)
Mix all ingredients for sweet vinegar. Pour oil in frying pan and place over heat. When pan is heated, add chopped hamo skin and cover with lid. When skin becomes crispy, place on paper kitchen towel to remove excess oil. Sprinkle with 1 Tbsp of sweet vinegar while still hot and mix.
Slice cucumbers, add salt and mix. Leave for three minutes and squeeze out moderate amounts of excess water.
Add sesame seed in mortar and grind well. Add 2 Tbsp sweet vinegar and dashi stock and mix. Add cucumber slices and mix. Then combine with hamo skin.