Cracking the Code: Your Guide to Cooking with Octopus


Deep Down Inside (the sea)
Octopus is as common as prawns and fish along the coast.
I can’t really remember the first time I ate octopus; it was definitely not in my growing years—we stuck to freshly caught river fish, since salt-water fish was almost impossible to procure in our nook of the hinterland. Adulthood ushered in experimenting with newer foods, which was further supported by the move to a bigger city with more food-crazy people to make friends with and eateries that welcomed patrons looking for new experiences. Honest confession: I’ve stuck to grilled octopus all the times I’ve had the privileged option of ordering this not-so-good-looking eight-armed “monster of the deep”. The last time this happened was at a teeny South Beach store of a popular Miami ceviche chain; we carried our order out to the beer lounge of a youth hostel next door, ordering a round with our tasty dinner, the last night of our trip. I ordered a fish and shrimp ceviche aji amarillo-style, grilled octopus and a side of mango slaw. Of course it was a lot of food for one person, and I surely would’ve been happy with the grilled octo and tangy slaw.
Octopus may be an exotic ingredient for a lot of us inlanders, but it’s as common as prawns and fish for the folk living by the sea, along the coastline. While not the most popular of seafood galore, octopus has its own following of fervent fans who appreciate its deep-sea brininess and distinct flavour. And while grilling seems to be the most popular way of enjoying this fascinating creature around the world, there are plenty of stews, curries, and even raw dishes to line up for the bucket list. Raw octopus may literally be the last one on the “things to eat before you die” list; Korean sannakji is still-wriggling octopus cut into small pieces, served with salt and sesame oil. These are to be chewed well before swallowing them down your throat; the suction cups on the arms have been known to latch on to the inner walls. Very few seafood varieties can claim to bring on such excitement and thrill. 
You may think there’s something royal about octopuses; they literally are blue-blooded, and are marked in shades of purple, that colour most associated with nobility. Considered the most intelligent of all invertebrates, they exhibit complex behaviour, including using coconut shells to conceal themselves and changing body shapes to mimic other animals. They are all venomous, but the venom is mild in most species making them perfectly fine to eat. The strikingly pretty blue-ringed octopus, however, carries enough venom to kill twenty-six adult humans within minutes. Just like the other cephalopods that include squid and cuttlefish, octopuses eject a dark ink when threatened. Masters of camouflage, they can change colours to match surroundings. Most species inhabit the deep depths of seas and oceans, but some are found closer to the surface and also tide pools and coral reefs.
In The Raw
Baby octopus is prized all over the world.
Raw, octopus meat is white and purple, gelatinous and firm. When cooked, the outside turns a reddish pink, while the inside is all white. The arms, misleadingly termed ‘tentacles’ have rows of suckers, similar to those seen on squids; the array patterns may differ between species though. Octopus meat is lean in fat, low-calorie and full of protein; dieters and gym rats revel in the 160 calories and 30 grams of protein each tasty portion of 100 grams has. The meat is especially rich in iron and Omega-3 fatty acids, with calcium, magnesium, phosphorus, potassium, zinc, copper, selenium and vitamin B12 thrown in. The cholesterol content, just like in some other seafood, may be a little higher than what’s ideal, but a small serving eaten regularly is just what keeps the nutritionist stoked.
Getting hold of freshly caught octopus may be easier if you live next to the coast, or have access to a supermarket or fishmonger getting daily deliveries of fresh catch. Cleaning fresh octopus can be a little tricky, but there are several tutorials available, breaking the process down into easy steps for noobs. The process is riveting, from the removal of the eyes and beak to the blanching of tentacles in boiling water, so that they curl up evenly. Using the frozen version makes it so much easier though, since it is usually cleaned and prepped, ready to be cooked, so no advance planning is required. Another bonus—frozen octopus is much easier to work with. A lot of home cooks recommend freezing fresh octopus to tenderize it for faster cooking, so you already have a head start. Thawing 10-12 hours in the fridge before cooking is an option, or accelerate this by putting the sealed package in cold water for about 30 minutes. Open package, and use contents as needed. Remember to maintain a constant cold temperature for the meat, if not cooking right away. 
The Long and Short of It
Octopus is either flash cooked or stewed for a long time.
Which brings us to the best part, where it gets more exciting. Also, sometimes confusing. Octopus is one of those ingredients that elicit a cluster of cooking suggestions ranging from the obvious to the aberrant— either flash cook it or braise or simmer for hours, as for squid; thwack it against rocks (or a kitchen sink for the modern version); boil in a copper pot; simmer with a wine cork.  Scientists, however, suggest adding a bit of vinegar and lots of cooking time for a richly flavoured dish with the right bit of bite. All however don’t agree, but old, inherited wisdom and hands-on experience do seem to have the authoritative edge. 
Many of the suggestions for cooking squid can be applied to cooking octopus as well; which only makes sense since they both belong to the same cephalopod family. Octopus that has been cooked longer than a minute or two, but lesser than the hour or so recommended to break down the gelatinous tissue will be chewy and rubbery—exactly the thing some diners complain about, and cite as an excuse to avoid eating. But blame the unskilled hands, since well-cooked meat is a pleasure to eat—not exactly melting, but tender with a bite. Baby octopuses cook faster than fully-grown animals, so it’s not uncommon to find grilled baby octopus served with a dipping sauce, or in salad.
Low and slow simmering is the key to cooking. “The average simmering time should be about an hour for a one pound (450g) Octopus, two hours for a four pound (1.8kg) Octopus, but that will vary.” suggests Cook’s info. You could simmer the meat in water, or stew it in a stock, adding onions or leeks, garlic, herbs like thyme and parsley, even spices like bay leaves, peppercorns etc. The tenderized meat can be finished on the grill, quickly charring it, or added to stews and curries. The braising stock can added to the latter for better flavours. The meat shrinks quite a lot during cooking, so account for that when deciding portions. 
What You Gonna Do?
Grilled octopus is very popular in many cuisines.
What can you do with octopus? Plenty of dishes. Cook the meat until tender, and stuff it into flaky pastries like this. Fry the cooked meat with potatoes and chorizo for a Spanish-style stir-fry or toss with cooked potatoes to make a polpo e patate. Another salad from italy, more specifically Puglia, mixes together celery, carrot, parsley with cooked pieces. For an Italian-Asian thrill, serve octopus stir fried with sesame oil, mushrooms and basil over angel hair. Speaking of Asian, Korean cuisine has a lot to offer, octopus-wise. Nakji Bokkeum traditionally uses baby octopus to stir fry with veggies and sauces and hot pepper, but tenderized discs of larger tentacles can be used too. For Jjukkumi Gui (Spicy Grilled Baby Octopus), you could use braised meat; marinate for at least 3 hours before the final stage of cooking.
Grilled octopus is popular also thanks to the myriad marinades, rubs, seasoning etc. each cuisine brings together, an individual footprint embedded in culinary diversity. Combine thyme, lemon, garlic and olive oil for a herby, tangy bath for your prepped fish like this. Or simmer the whole body in white wine with lemon, garlic, wine cork et al, and throw the cooked meat on the grill. Swap the white wine with sherry, and mix together a hot sauce for a Mexican-style Grilled Octopus with Ancho Chile Sauce. To cook with red wine, you could braise the octopus, stewing it with vegetables, and olives
Octopus, known as makul in Marathi, is quite popular among fishing communities in and around coastal areas in various states in our country. While Indian dishes using this seafood have not made it to mainstream eating out yet, there are plenty of recipes developed around it. Uday Potdar, a medical professional with a passion for everyday local cuisine explains his favourite ways of cooking octopus: “Baby octopus chilly fry—the Goan way; octopus moilee—the Kerala way; octopus koshimbir (salad)—stir-fried octopus with fresh roasted and crushed cumin, a dash of kokum extract, coal-roasted shallots, crushed sea salt, garnished with freshly scraped coconut and chopped coriander”.
Octopus curry is relished not only in India, but also Jamaica, Seychelles, Mauritius etc.
You’ll find quite a number of curried octopus dishes in cuisines that have evolved from a backdrop of Indian regional influence. From Jamaica to Seychelles and Mauritius,  they all have octopus curries, with and without coconut milk. There’s even a tandoori octopus recipe that really, more restaurants here look to feature instead of humdrum chicken. A simple way to cook baby octopus is to stir fry it with garlic, lemon and fresh coriander, with a bit of fresh chilli if you wish to up the heat a little. Another way to put up a spicy dish is to toss ground chilli with ginger, garlic, onions and tomatoes with the blanched meat. 
Octopus dishes can be paired with many wines, including most whites, even some light-bodied reds. A fruity Zinfandel will be great with grilled octo, but a Rioja should couple equally well too. Look at a pinot noir to match with an octopus salad, and a viognier with curry.

It’s All About The Now
Life is pretty dull if it’s all about reaching out for the known and familiar every time. A little excitement, a tad of thrill on your plate will keep you chugging along splendidly. A tasty adventure is just the ride you need. Go ahead and cross that off your bucket list. 


About the Author
An incorrigible gastronome, Rupika V is on a perpetual quest to find the best food around, and will happily travel far to find it.
Image Credit: Cover
Image Credit: Deep Down Inside (the sea)
Image Credit: In The Raw
Image Credit: The Long and Short of It
Image Credit: What You’re Gonna Do?
Image Credit: Octopus Curry

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