Conger Pike (ハモ)
Conger pike (Muraenesox cinereus) is a kind of fish classified in the Muraenesocidae family, order Anguilliformes. It is a large carnivorous fish living off the coast, and is treated as a luxury foodstuff. When it is used, it is treated the same as a similar species, Suzuhamo, Muraenesox bagio (Hamilton, 1822).
They average 1 meter in length, but can be up to 2.2 meters long. It has a long and thin cylindrical body as with other fish of the order Anguilliformes. Its body is reddish brown with a white stomach, and it has no scales on the surface of the skin. The side of the body has a well developed lateral line, and the anus is near the center of the body. Each fin is rather developed as with all of the order Anguilliformes. The back fin begins right after the operculum and the anal fin is positioned near the center of the body, and connects with the tail fin. The pectoral fin is relatively large.
The mouth stretches to behind the eyes, and its nose is long and developed, the tip of which is slightly curved. It has sharp canine-like teeth towards the front of the jaw, and smaller teeth further back. It has a big mouth and sharp teeth, and sufficient caution is required when handling it when it is caught as it is known to attack and bite. It is said that its Japanese name 'hamo' stems from the word 'hamu', which means bite and eat, because it always attempts to bite.
It is widely distributed in tropical and temperate zones in the western Pacific and the Indian Ocean, and it is also found in areas to the south of central Honshu in Japan.
It inhabits areas off the coast up to a depth of 100 meters. During the day it rests under the sand or between rocks, but swims near the sea bed to find prey at night. It is carnivorous and preys on small fish, shellfish, Cephalopoda and so on.
It breeds during the summer, laying eggs which float, and in contrast to eels it does not participate in large-scale migration but instead remains in coastal areas to breed. Leptocephalus (eel larvae) appear in the fall, and are sometimes caught by whitebait fishermen as bycatch.
Conger pike are caught mainly by a trawl or longline. They are sometimes caught by fishing, but few people who fish aim for conger pike because there is a risk of being bitten and considerable skill is required to cook them (as described later).
Conger pike is treated as a luxury foodstuff in Japan. In Kyoto it is eaten especially during the Gion Festival (as mentioned below), and it is prized as being a typical summer dish.
It is a dish which displays the marked differences in culture between the Kansai and Kanto regions
Even in Kansai, conger pike is considered a luxury foodstuff in summer, but parboiled conger pike is widely sold in supermarkets, so it is a dish closely connected to everyday life. In Kanto, on the other hand, it is rarely seen other than in fancy Japanese restaurants, so it is not really seen as an everyday food. In terms of consumption, the consumption of conger pike in Kanto is about one tenth of the amount in the Kansai region. Blowfish is sometimes viewed as a similar kind of foodstuff.
The reason why Kyoto, even though conger pike is not caught in the area so much, has developed a tradition to eat it is because it is one of the handful of fish with very strong vitality which could be transported live to Kyoto in the summer before modern high-speed transport developed.
Broiled conger pike is often compared with broiled eel. Since demand is high, it is also imported from the Republic of Korea and the People's Republic of China to supplement the Japanese catch.
Conger pike is full of long, hard small bones. For this reason, preparation called 'honekiri' (cutting small bones) is required in order to eat it.
This is a technique performed to remove the small bones by making small cuts in the meat of the fish which is opened from the ventral side without cutting the skin, and which requires proficiency
A chef is considered proficient if he can make '26 cuts per sun (approximately 3cm)' with a kitchen knife. A special knife called a bone cutting chopper can be used.
After the bone cutting process, when the conger pike is put into boiling water it rolls back and opens like a white flower. This is called yubiki hamo (parboiled conger pike) or botan hamo (peony-shaped conger pike). It can be eaten plain with a pickled Japanese apricot or vinegared miso (bean paste) with mustard, but it is also used in various dishes including clear soups, in a steamed dish in an earthenware teapot, sushi, tempura and for broiling. Parboiled conger pike do not open as nicely as live ones.
Additionally, the meat of the conger pike is used as an ingredient for high quality kamaboko (boiled fish paste). The skin remaining after that process is parboiled and cut finely and used in vinegared dishes.
2002 (ranked according to size of catch)
1 - Nagasaki Fishing Port (Nagasaki Prefecture)
2 - Tsubakidomari Fishing Port (Tokushima Prefecture)
3 - Yawatahama Fishing Port (Ehime Prefecture)
4 - Hakata Fishing Port (Fukuoka Prefecture)
5 - Saga Fishing Port (Yamaguchi Port)
Five genera and eight species in the tropical and temperate zones of the world are known as fish of the family Muraenasocidae. A rather long nose and developed fins are characteristic of the order Anguilliformes.
Suzuhamo, Muraenesox bagio (Hamilton, 1822)
Suzuhamo can grow up to 2 meters long. They can be distinguished from conger pike by the number of lateral line pores before the anus (conger pike have between 40 and 47, Muraenesox bagio 33 to 39). However, in appearance, distribution and biology it is very similar to the conger pike and it is treated as the same creature in fish markets.
Hashinaga hamo, Oxyconger leptognathus (Bleeker, 1858)
This species is also called Hashinaga anago. They are usually about 60-cm long when fully grown. It is thinner than the conger pike, and the nose tapers to a point as the Japanese name shows. It is found in the western Pacific from the areas south of the Kii Peninsula in Japan to western Australia, and inhabits the sea bed up to a depth of 100 meters. However, its biology is not well understood.
Gavialiceps taiwanensis (Chen et Weng, 1967)
This species is about 75-cm long, and thinner than the conger pike. It is found in ocean areas stretching from the Okinawa Islands to Taiwan, and inhabits the deep sea at a depth of 600 to 750-meters.