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One of the greatest food memories of my travels around the globe has to be an early-morning visit to the legendary Tsukiji fish market in Tokyo. While dodging the porters and fishermen, I saw hundreds of varieties of fish and seafood being auctioned off for sale all over Japan.
Amongst all the amazing noises, sights and smells of the market, my eyes were drawn to a number of huge glass tanks containing live octopi, many of whom were attempting to escape by climbing over the sides using the suckers on their tentacles. Unfortunately for them they were soon recaptured and dispatched off to feed hungry locals and tourists including myself.
Watching the Iron Chef and his challenger battle with this eight-legged beast this week really reminded me of my experiences in Japan and I hope it inspires you to try preparing octopus in your own kitchen.
What is octopus?
An octopus is a cephalopod mollusk and is a relative of the squid and cuttlefish. The creatures take their name from the Greek word “ὀκτώπους,” which literally means “eight feet.” This refers to the fact that the octopus has four pairs of legs extending symmetrically from its body. It also has a hard beak and an internal sac of ink, which it uses for defense.
The octopus has no internal or external skeleton, which allows it to crawl into tiny spaces on the ocean floor, both for defensive reasons and in search of the small crabs, shrimp and other seafood it eats to stay alive.
The Greek philosopher Aristotle wrote about the octopus in his History of Animals saying “The octopus is a stupid creature, for it will approach a man’s hand if it be lowered in the water.” Modern marine biologists, however, now consider the octopus to be one of the more intelligent animals in the ocean and tests have shown that it has a capacity to learn and develop during a very short six-month life span.
Where does octopus come from?
Although there are fresh water varieties among the nearly 300 types of octopus in existence around the world, most thrive in the deep salt-water of warmer oceans. They can be found throughout the Mediterranean and in the coastal waters of Japan and Australia.
Although octopus is still an ingredient that many Americans are wary of, it is found in large numbers in the coastal waters of the Pacific Ocean and is becoming more and more commonly found both on menus and in markets around the USA.
The octopus has been part of humanity’s seafood larder long before we had written records, and there are recipes for it to be found in the literature of both Ancient Rome and Greece. It still remains hugely popular as a dish in many parts of the world including Japan, Korea, Mediterranean countries such as Italy, Spain and Portugal, and also throughout Central and South America.
How do I cook octopus?
Just like squid, octopus needs to be cooked very quickly at a very high temperature or at a low temperature for a long time. Anywhere in between and the flesh of the animal becomes tough, chewy and almost impossible to eat.
One of my favorite preparations of octopus is “Pulpo Alla Gallega,” which is a dish from the northern Spanish region of Galicia. The octopus is beaten to tenderize the flesh and then braised before being served, traditionally on a wooden board, with boiled potatoes, olive oil and lots of paprika.
In Puglia, I once ate “Polpi in Umido,” where the octopus had been braised slowly in local white wine and ripe red tomatoes until the meat was beautifully soft and creamy and the sauce could be scooped from the bowl with large chunks of hot bread served straight from the oven.
Octopus is readily available all over Japan. Octopus sushi is a classic use, but the most popular dish among the locals is “Takoyaki,” which are small balls of minced octopus that are grilled and sold from street stalls in many parts of the country.
Perhaps the most unusual (and frightening) octopus dish in world cuisine is “Sannakji,” a dish I encountered at Jagalchi, the world’s second-largest fish market in Pusan, South Korea. Sannakji is a dish made from a small live octopus whose tentacles wrap around your tongue as you try to swallow it. It is considered by many to be good for health, which will come as little comfort to the dozen or so people who die every year as the octopus wins and strangles them on the inside.
The majority of octopus that is available in the U.S. is frozen. Although it is not quite the same as using octopus in its live state, the freezing process does help tenderize the flesh and makes it more convenient to cook. It will most likely have been cleaned and have had the ink sac and beak removed, but octopus will need thawing. This can be done easily by leaving it in water overnight or by placing the octopus in a saucepan of water over a gentle heat until its color changes from a gray white to a light purple. It can then be prepared according to your recipe.
Where can I buy octopus?
It is very difficult to find live octopus in the U.S., but you may find one or two of the larger Asian markets occasionally have some on offer. Otherwise, they will have them pre-cleaned and sliced ready for cooking.
Some of the larger gourmet supermarkets will also carry frozen octopus, and many Italian markets also have them on sale along with other frozen seafood. You can also buy large packs of frozen octopus online.