Unraveling the Octopus
Shrouded in its chameleon like cloak, the octopus remains an enigma, a ninja of the seas, a silent assassin that stalks prey with an array of weaponry that can be used for attack or defense. Specialized skin cells change color as well as refract light, which allows an octopus to camouflage itself among rocky crevices on the ocean floor or flash neon signals to warn predators to stay away or risk attack. This similarity to the ninja is personified by an octopus’s ability to confound predators by squirting black ink into the face of attackers as it disappears to safety. Eight powerful tentacles lined with hundreds of suction cups as well as a razor sharp beak is silent death that wraps unsuspecting prey in a vice like grip as its hooked beak tears them apart. In appearance, it’s bloated balloon like head with eight trailing tentacles that undulates in a stealth sinuous motion that gives the appearance of an unsavory creature more suited for scary bedtime stories than food for the hungry gourmet.
The octopus, whose ancestors can be traced as far back as 200 million years, belongs to the cephalopod family and can be found in warm and temperate climates throughout the world. There are over two hundred and eighty nine species of this marine animal which range in color and size from the tiny “octopus wolfi” which is a mere one and a half centimeters to the giant pacific octopus which can weigh as much as six hundred pounds and have an arm span of thirty feet.
Ancient Norwegian sea lore as far back as the sixteenth century is replete with tales of a giant monster of the deep called the “Kraken” that attacked sea faring vessel, splintering the wooden boats asunder with murderous tentacles, dragging the ship and it’s sailors to the depths of the ocean to be swallowed whole. The 2006 Disney movie Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest cast its main villain, Davie Jones, as a hideously deformed creature, a Frankenstein of the sea, pieced together from human and shellfish parts with a face studded with barnacles and octopus tentacles. For good measure, the monstrously huge and evil sea creature depicted in the movie as a devourer of ships aptly named the “Kraken” reincarnated the octopus from evil sea creature of the sixteenth century, to evil monster of the twenty-first century. Content to hide in the murky depths of the ocean floor, surrounded by mystique of an American populace weaned on the make believe world that is cinema, the octopus remains consigned to restaurant menus as a curious delicacy; because truth be told, no one wants to eat a monster.
Luckily, our counterparts across the Atlantic had no such qualms about plucking the octopus from its rocky home and dropping them into stewpots, grilling them over hot coals or just eating them raw. Octopus has been a staple food throughout the Mediterranean and Asia for centuries; appearing in Spain as “pulpo a la gallega,” – octopus that has been boiled in water for at least twenty minutes, cut into pieces, sprinkled with salt, ‘pimenton’ and olive oil, traditionally this dish is served with boiled potatoes or bread. The Portuguese prepare “polvo guisado,” which is an octopus stew using red wine, as the braising liquid. The Japanese who are fanatical about eating anything that swim, crawl or float in the ocean, (the average Japanese consumes about 132 pounds of seafood each year), prepare and consume octopus in several different ways. One popular preparation, is to serve the octopus sashimi style, – which is raw octopus, sliced paper thin and served with soy sauce and wasabi.
All of these dishes could be duplicated quite easily by the adventurous home cook, but for one major stumbling block. According to Mark Bittman in his article titled Octopus Demystified, “reigning wisdom is that the octopus is so tough that extraordinary measures must be taken to tenderize it.” A novice attempting to cook octopus for the first time, may to their dismay, discover an unpalatable blob that has the appearance of a boiled shoe and the mouth feel and texture of twice chewed bubblegum. Once again, the octopus has shrouded itself with an elusive veil that evokes fear and misunderstanding, a shadowy netherworld, shared by its mysterious alter ego, the ninja.
This cephalopods mystique has become culinary folklore, with each ethnic cuisine devising their own unique way of cooking an octopus to achieve maximum tenderness and flavor. Italians stand firmly behind their belief of adding a few wine corks to the stewpot when cooking octopus. A Greek cook will tell you pulverize it against rocks. In Spain the octopus has to be held by the head and ceremoniously dipped in boiling water three times, and then cooked in a copper pot. The Japanese like to rub it with salt and knead it with grated daikon root similar to the fastidious massaging received by their famed waygu cattle. Others hold claim to the belief that octopus caught from one region will be more flavorful and tender than another.
Harold McGee a noted food scientist decided to apply the cold logic of science in determining the best way to cook an octopus. He wrote about his findings in the March 5th issue of the New York Times in an article called “To Cook an Octopus: Forget the Cork, add Science.” In his attempt to debunk the traditional methods used by generations of cooks to tenderize octopus he cooked octopus in a variety of ways using quantitative measures to record the results. His efforts proved futile, and once again the octopus was able to defeat a mighty foe and keep alive its mystique. Americans may never be able to popularize the Octopus on its shores despite the widespread belief that this eight-tentacled creature is a potent aphrodesiac. This may bode well for the octopus who may never have to suffer the scourge of overfishing or the degeneration of a specie through commercialization – think of salmon. With luck the octopus will remain as it should; a legendary creature of the deep, delicious to those who can appreciate it, and mysterious to the rest of us.