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.