38. Seasonal Cuisine - Gion Festival
For Kyoto residents, July is the month of Gion festival (祇園祭り).
In this particular month of hot humid summer, we eat Hamo (鱧, sea eel), and that's why Gion festival is otherwise called the Hamo festival. When I was a Maiko (舞妓), I saw many kinds of Hamo dishes served at Ozashiki (お座敷, Maiko banquet, Maiko's work place). In addition, Hamo-zushi (鱧寿し, sushi with Hamo pieces) was our delightful supper before going to Ozashiki.
Along with Hamo dishes, Ayu (鮎, sweet fish) are also very popular. Interesting thing about Ayu is that there is a certain technique to pull out the bone from the body: press the body several times with chopsticks to loosen the bone and the flesh, and pull the spine out slowly from the gill, then the whole body remains without losing its shape. This way, the whole body including the head can be eaten. My customers used to be very pleased when they successfully pulled out the bone, because it was considered as a lucky sign.
As for Hamo, since it has a lot of very stiff bones, it has to be prepared with a special technique called Honekiri (骨切り, cutting bones with knife) before cooking. Since the technique requires expertise that only well trained chefs can do, Hamo is not much consumed in Japan other than Kyoto. However, pieces of boiled Hamo after Honekri accompanied by red plum sauce are just beautiful like white flowers. Every time I see this traditional Kyoto cuisine, I recognize the arrival of severe hot summer.
For me as a former Maiko, Gion Bayashi (祇園囃子, Gion festival music), Hamo dishes, and the hair style called Katsuyama (勝山) which is allowed only to Maiko during Gion festival season, are three top icons of July in Kyoto.
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