How to Eat an Octopus
An intelligent meal

When it comes to the molluscan cephalopod known as the octopus there are two ongoing discussions. One concerns what we have deemed the surprising or uncommon intelligence of the invertebrate. That intelligence originates from 130 million neurons residing in an octopus’ brain and then twice that many spread across eight partially autonomous tentacles. Observers cite behaviors they identify as clever, playful, or expressing character to exemplify intelligence.

The other discussion concerns how to properly cook one. Methods for tenderizing the rubbery flesh (from forceful blows to massaging) followed by how and for how long to cook it (anywhere from 5 minutes to several hours) is of principle concern. But while the first discussion is generally that of like minds building a unified body of knowledge, this second conversation is disparate and without a reliable conclusion. 

Where these two conversations intersect a passionate circle begs the question, should we be eating them in the first place?  In Japan few would say no. As the largest consumer of octopus, it is found throughout the cuisine in forms that range from delicate slices of sashimi to the street food takoyaki (grilled doughy balls with an octopus filling).

While octopus has long been a part of Northern Mediterranean and Asian diets, a generation of adventurous eaters has brought it to more tables and a wider audience around the world. If freshness is not your primary concern, frozen octopus is more readily available than ever. It is even preferred by some who believe that freezing renders the meat more tender. In Japan freshness reigns supreme. And with ocean on all sides and in between the string of islands, fresh octopus is easy to obtain. But it can intimidate even the best chefs. Nobuhisa Abe, the chef at Michelin starred Ginsushi, won't touch one. "I don't like how it feels," he says visibly shuddering. 

Indeed, you must get up close and personal to properly cook octopus and the feel is the largest barrier to preparing fresh octopus at home. The first step (provided the fish monger has already removed the head sack innards) requires intimate contact with a slimy, unstructured, 8-pronged mass of flesh that flops about in an unruly fashion. In his seminal volume Japanese Cooking: A Simple Art, Shizuo Tsuji suggests massaging it in a bowl of grated daikon radish. Salt is a simpler and equally effective alternative.

Lightly simmered octopus is lovely. The flesh is crisp white and lean, the skin a purplish red scrim stretched over a translucent gelatinous layer below. The experience of eating octopus lies more in the consistency than in the taste. Though chewy, it does not require unusual effort to eat, and the mild, clean taste pairs well with a myriad of other flavors.



Step 1 ~ Salt, Rub, and Simmer

  • Set a pot of water (large enough to accomodate the octopus) on a strong flame to boil. 
  • Prepare a bowl with at least 1/2 a cup of table salt.
  • When the pot is close to a boil (and no sooner) place the octopus whole in a large bowl or directly into a freshly cleaned sink.
  • Take liberal handfulls of salt and thoroughly masage it into the entire body.
  • Continue in this manner, vigorously massaging the salt into the body for 5 minutes or so.
  • Rinse thoroughly in cold water and strain.
  • Grasping by the head, lower the legs slowly into the just boiling water. Lift and gently submerge two more times, a little further each time. This encourages the legs to curl just so.
  • On the thrid descent lower the octopus completely into the water.
  • Allow to simmer for 5 minutes, gently move it around the pot it occasionally to be sure it cooks evenly.
  • Remove from the water and set with legs down in a strainer.
  • Allow to cool naturally and slowly.

* Be sure your water is almost at a boil before salting. The massaging is said to tenderize the meat while the salt rub acts to cleanse the octopus (to remove the slimy film from the skin and any unpleasant aromas). But too much salt will counter the massaging and toughen the meat. 

* The cool octopus will naturally bring the boiling water down to a simmer. If, in the course of cooking, the water begins to boil again, reduce the heat.


Step 2 ~ Wash, Slice, and Serve

  • When the octopus is cool, wash it again under cool water to clean off any residue from the water bath. Pay particular attention to the sucker rings. 
  • Remove one tentacle by slicing up the skirt on either side towards the head and then cutting free the tentacle.
  • Remove one inch or so from the very tip of the tentacle.
  • Lay the tentacle on a cutting board, suckers up, with the larger end on the left.
  • Starting at the left, slice off thin rounds at an angle.
  • Arrange on a serving plate and serve sashimi style with your choice of sauce.


* Sauces include bainiku jouyu (plum and soy paste), yuzukosho (spicy citrus paste) and soy, or a good olive oil and sea salt.

Cultivated Days

TEXT & PHOTOGRAPHY: Prairie Stuart-Wolff 

11.3.15 | permalink


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