Hamo – don’t try this at home!

As I mentioned in my last entry, Isechō’s signature summer meal features hamo, conger pike eel, which is a Kyoto speciality associated with the Gion Matsuri parade held on July 17th, and since I posted that story I have been researching the difficult preparation of this eel. I have found the following videos from Chef Seiji Yamamoto of the Michelin three-star restaurant Ryugin in Tokyo, which really shows just how much effort is needed to prepare this delicacy, including the use of a specialised knife that is just for the task of cutting through the bones of the eel. According to Kyoto Foodie, the chef aims to cut 26 slices every 3 centimetres without cutting through the skin, which is about 1mm per slice, and given that the eel is about a meter long that is quite outstounding skill. These are beautiful videos, without dialogue, so you can enjoy them as is. However, Chef Yamamoto has added his comments to the videos, which I have translated below. [Cate]

Video 1/2: Preparing hamo

Notes from Chef Seiji Yamamoto:

At my restaurant, Ryugin, I have explored all angles and methods in perfecting his technique for cutting the bones of the hamo, including going to a medical laboratory to take CT scans in order to scientifically, medically and physically understand thoroughly the bone structure of the eel. It is the result of this scientific approach that I now share with you on this video.

If you lay the hamo onto a flat cutting board and then cut it at a 90-degree angle, the small bones remain tapered and sharp. However, if you raise the cutting board at an angle of 25 degrees and then cut the eel, the small bones are then cross-sectioned, making them blunt, which creates a better texture.

On the surface of the skin there are three layers: a slimy layer, a gelatinous layer and then a fibrous layer. When you put the eel into water that is heated to just 70 degrees, the heat barely penetrates through to the fibrous layer but causes the gelatinous layer to separate. The heated water causes the slimy and gelatinous layers to swell up so that they can be easily scraped off, leaving only the smooth fibrous layer of skin, without even a hint of that fishy smell. In subsequent preparation, when cooking this fibrous layer at a temperature of 58 degrees, it will gelatinise perfectly. Needless to say, during this first stage of cooking, the low heat does not affect the flesh of the eel…

Video 2/2: Preparing hamo with matsutake mushrooms (2011 summer menu)
Now you can appreciate why 3-star Michelin chefs earn those stars! So much work for such a delicate morsel!

Notes from Chef Seiji Yamamoto:

I experimented with a variety of different ways to prepare this “hamo yakishimo” [see Techniques]. At first I found a method for cooking the eel so that the flesh remains raw and just the skin is cooked, but then I realised that if the eel was immersed briefly in a konbu stock heated to exactly 58 degrees, then the flavour of the hamo was able to be more fully realised than if it remained just raw. For grilling the skin, at first I only had a gas flame, but then I wondered about grilling the hamo on a charcoal-heated grill or a charcoal flame grill. I had also tried using a heated stone. Then this year I suddenly thought, “What about placing the hamo directly onto the charcoal itself?” And this dish is the result of that idea, which I offered in this year’s summer menu. I have since tried this method with a number of other kinds of seafood. Also, the way that the flesh of the hamo naturally curls around the charcoal creates a very pleasing shape.

Before cooking, I briefly marinate just the skin of the hamo in a mixture of junmai sake [high grade sake without added alcohol or sugar], sudachi juice and yuzu juice. By doing so, the texture of the skin becomes softer and the slight sourness combined with the fragrance of the sudachi and yuzu goes perfectly with the matsutake mushrooms, which are grilled with a marinade of shoyu and the highly fragrant sudachi.

Usually with the yakishimo method, the hamo would be quickly cooled after grilling, but if the temperature of this cooling immersion is less than 20 degrees, this actually gives the skin of the hamo an unpleasant gummy texture that also does not bring out the full umami flavour when eaten…

2 Comments on “Hamo – don’t try this at home!”

  1. Sissi says:

    Cate, I have thoroughly enjoyed both videos. Fascinating! The first part (eel cutting) of the first one is like watching a famous ballerina! I struggle with fish cutting quite often (the only shop which sells here fresh, big variety of fish sells mostly to restaurants, so they will not touch small fish… I have to prepare them on my own) and I think that if a Japanese chef (not even Michelin-starred!) saw how I torture the poor fish, he would faint 🙂
    This reminds me of the only time I bought an eel here. It was alive, but as I have suspected, killing it was the easiest step. It was a sweet water eel (black) but it was also horribly slimy… I spent an hour trying to prepare it… It was a nightmare.
    Thank you so much for sharing these videos and for your translations. The description is very interesting and illustrates the Japanese unique approach to food and cooking. Pure perfection.

    • Cate Pearce says:

      Sissi, I’m so impressed that you’d even try to tackle preparing an eel! I think it seems like far too much effort to try at home – that’s why I love to visit restaurants where I know that the chef has put in so much effort that I’m too lazy to, but I really enjoy those tasty morsels in appreciation of that effort. I was particularly intrigued by the knife which has been especially created for the sole purpose of cutting hamo, in which the slicing action involves the whole length of its considerable blade. Now, to be able to do that for a long period of time over the length of the eel, 1-2mm at a time…without cutting the skin…that’s WOW!

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