It’s the morning of New Years Eve and Im digging around in the ice bins at the fish market. The day is hot and busy and there are people with lists and bags. A long queue has formed over by the prawns and squid area and crowds outside are eating oysters and chips and sauce. Ive found the octopuses over by the fish heads and bones and Im scratching my head – not literally of course.. the last thing you would want is octopus slime in your hair – figuring out how to disentangle a specimen from the icy grey/purple tangle. Long squooshy tentacles stretch and twist around each other and small eyes peer out from elongated heads. It is difficult to tell where one octopus ends and the next begins. A helpful fishmonger reaches in with a rubber glove and gets one by the neck. “This one look good?”.
I gave my specimen a rinse before cooking and although I had read about massaging the octopus to tenderise it, I found it to be an very wriggly squooshy and hard to handle creature and only really gave it a cursory once-over. I had read a dozen recipes for stewed and grilled octopus then amalgamated them on the fly. I took a big, dry, empty pot up to a medium high heat and dropped the octopus in. There was much hissing and smoke and steam. I glugged in some olive oil, then put the lid on.
After 10 mins or so I turned it over and left it for another 20 mins. Where the tentacles had first touched the hot metal there were blackened spots and some caramelization, but enough liquid was released fast enough that it was soon simmering in salty juices that were bubbling up almost covering the animal. I threw in half a lemon, a handful of parsley and cold water to cover and left it for another 40 mins. The smell at this stage was salty, evocative and meaty.
As it bubbled away I did a spot of reading. Octopuses are amazing!
Technically they are moluscs from the class cephalapoda. In greek this is ‘head-foot’, literally the head is attached directly to the feet. I also learned that the term octopi is incorrect as the word has its roots in the greek oktōpous rather than latin. The greek plural would be ‘octopodes’.
Below the head, at the centre of the tentacles is a beak like a bird’s and a tongue like a drill bit. All species have a venomous bite, but only the greater blue ringed octopus is considered harmful to humans. They prey on crabs, crayfish and shellfish and can bite through the shell. They have large brains which are thought to be necessary to control the complicated nervous system behind all those tentacles and the independent action of the suction cups. They have the ability to change colour better than a chameleon, and since their blood is copper-based, as opposed to our iron-based blood, it flows blue. The movement of each tentacle is partially outsourced from the brain so they can reflex on their own, with built in chemical mechanisms for not getting tangled with the other tentacles. Also.. Get this.. the third tentacle from the right on the male octopus is used to fertilize the eggs of the female octopus… whaaa!?!.. He just reaches over and places it inside the cavity in her head! He then dies, and the female only stays alive long enough to incubate and protect the eggs before she dies. Therefore no octopus recieve any parenting. It has been suggested we should get on with eating them as they would surely take over the world if they figured out parenting.
The oddities continue. Consider their three hearts, each pumping blood to a different part of the body. Or the ink sac, which they squirt in a getaway, or to confuse their prey. Or the option to move at high speed with jet propulsion by bringing water in through the valve in the side of their head and powerfully ejecting it.
They are intelligent creatures but the way in which this is measured appears to be up for debate amongst scientists. They will try different approaches to solve a problem for example changing their technique when a familiar shellfish is proving harder to pry open (because some scientist has wired it shut). They’ll copy behaviours from their peers e.g. taking the twist top off a bottle to get the crab inside and are documented to have taken coconut shells and modified their shape into appropriate housing. Ive heard anecdotes of Octopodes found far from the sea, walking in the forest. They appear to have a sense of humour, and there are countless stories of them interfering with acquirium pumps and thermometers, including of course the old chestnut about them climbing into other tanks during the night to eat the other occupants.
Octopuses only live for 3 years, but multiply quickly, which should make them a sustainable food choice. This view is shared by the Australian site Good Fish Bad Fish, but neither Greenpeace nor the Forest and Bird guide seem to have much to add that is specific to NZ. It is noted that baby octopus are often imported from a different fishery so may have a more dubious status.
Back to the kitchen…
I removed the octopus from the pot and set about cleaning off the gunk. The tentacles and head firmed up and were much more tactile, but had also become fragile. The suckers on the tentacles came off while trying to clean off the gooey gunk in between them. I was left with 8 smooth tentacles, the head and the area around the beak. Most of the surface of the head is edible and inside is undistinguishable grey muck which I scraped out. It appears to me that this animal probably has the highest proportion of edible to non-edible parts to it, leading to a feeling of having respected the animal by eating most of it, despite having butchered its integrity with my experimental cooking. I later read they are 90% muscle. I sprinkled on oil, salt, pepper and a handful of thyme, then fried over a high heat and drizzled with lemon juice. I tipped the hot crispy curly tentacles into a bowl and studied them. This wasnt quite how I had imagined this would turn out. Next time I will wash more thoroughly while raw and keep the suction cups. I nibbled gingerly at first, then realising they were truly delicious began to hungrily demolish them, particularly the curled up crispy tentacle ends. I headed out to enjoy the last few hours of the year, stoked to have made peace with the octopus.