Hunting up and down side-street stalls during the annual Gion Festival, I was looking for one thing. Okonomiyaki pancakes, griddle-fried yakisoba noodles and even little charred yakitori chicken skewers are fine for your average summer festival, but wasting your time on such trivialities at this Kyoto event would be a shame. What I was looking for, smelling for, was the delicate emperor of all things grilled, the rich city cousin of the unagi eel, the pike conger, hamo.

Unagi (grilled eel) tastes best with sticky sweet soy sauce.

The very best hamo swims in the shallow warm waters just off western Japan. Eating season starts in early summer and peaks just for the Gion Festival in July, which Kyotoites call the month of hamo. Only during the festival does the hamo — usually found behind the prohibitively expensive and socially exclusive thin paper walls of the finest ryotei restaurants — come out to the streets for the commoners. And that is when it is at its best — smoke-sweet and full of flavorful juices.

It takes certain skill to dissect, clean and break down hamo for the eating public. Once the eel has been opened and most of the bones removed, the fine pin bones running up and down the length of the fish are scored crosswise with a heavy knife called a hamokiribocho made just for this job. If you are not careful, you will cut not only through the pin bones but split the flesh in half, making it very difficult to skewer and grill.

Cooking Hamo (pike conger) requires a skillful touch with the knife

Needless to say, this process is best left to the professional; but this is not something I usually advocate. As a professional myself, I take umbrage with the idea, especially prevalent in Japan, that many cooking matters be left to the people who do it for a living. While there are technical maneuvers that definitely fall into this category, most matters of cooking can be and should be at least attempted, if not regularly practiced, at home. Finding the line between what you can do and what you should leave to the master is the key. With hamo, sure, it takes a skilled knife to cut, but don’t be afraid to grill it yourself over a charcoal flame.

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Kabayaki is a kind of teriyaki where the fish is split open and grilled whole or almost whole while being basted in a sticky, sweet soy-based sauce.

Unagi is the most popular kabayaki, and Tokyo unagi is unrivaled. In Osaka, we split our unagi as well as our hamo from the belly. In Edo Period Tokyo, with all of the warrior class walking around, it would have been tantamount to treason to cut open unagi from the belly — too close to the belly-splitting hara-kiri to be comfortable. Thus, opening from the backbone was introduced and still continues in the Kanto region today.

Before something may be basted with teriyaki sauce, it must be par-cooked. In Tokyo, unagi is grilled, then steamed and grilled again while being basted with the sweet shoyu. In Osaka, we skip the steaming. While Tokyoites swear by steaming, our unsteamed unagi and hamo kabayaki are not to be taken lightly.

When using teriyaki sauce, the par-grilled item is not salted but grilled plain in a process called shirayaki, or white (signifying no sauce) grilling.

After successful shirayaki, the hamo or unagi is coated, sometimes dipped, in the teriyaki sauce and put back over or under the flame until the sauce dries, not charring at this point. After several repetitions of this basting and drying, the fish is eventually allowed to linger on the flame just a little longer between sauce applications to caramelize the sugars and impart the taste and glossy sheen that makes kabayaki famous.

A good teriyaki sauce that may be used on just about any fish — and even grilled chicken, duck, pork or lamb — consists of one part each koikuchi shoyu (dark soy sauce), mirin and sake. Up to one part sugar is often added, but I think this is excessive. Slow careful grilling yields a finished product that is naturally sweet and luscious.

Teriyaki sauce

1 cup koikuchi shoyu
1 cup mirin
1 cup sake
1/2 cup sugar (optional)

1) Place sake and mirin in a shallow pan, and, over a low flame, allow the sake to flame, burning off the alcohol. This process is called nikorosu (to kill by simmering).

2) Add soy and sugar, and remove from the flame.

3) Let cool, and store in a lidded container at room temperature. This sauce may be used with any skewered fish or chicken, etc. First grill the item at least 85-90 percent before basting and continuing to slowly cook until done. Serve over cooked rice or other grain with powdered sansho (Japanese pepper) sprinkled liberally on top.

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