Why Octopuses Are the Cephalopods du Jour
They’ve been known to open jars and predict the outcome of football matches. They can change shape and colour, and project images on their bodies. They are intelligent creatures, able to navigate their way through mazes, solve problems quickly, and remember the solutions, at least for the short term. No doubt, octopuses are impressively smart, but that hasn’t stopped them from making their way to the dinner plates of restaurants across Singapore of late.
At newly minted one-Michelin-star restaurant Whitegrass, chef Sam Aisbett gently poaches octopus from the waters of Fremantle in Western Australia with ginger and spring onions, lays their thin slices atop steamed garlic custard, and garnishes the lot with wakame (Japanese seaweed), young almonds and garlic cream.
At the temperature-controlled indoor garden restaurant Pollen, chef Steve Allen uses octopus from Ria de Arousa in the northwest of Spain to make a dish of grilled octopus legs with charred padron peppers, bagna càuda and tomatoes.
Meanwhile, chef Daniel Chavez of Peruvian restaurant Tono Cevicheria carves slivers of octopus, dresses them with lemon juice, and then blankets it all in a black olive mayonnaise and chimichurri.
Suffice to say, the list of octopus delights is wide-ranging and surely a testament to the octopuses' path to usurping their calamari cousins as the cephalopods du jour.
BETWEEN A ROCK
AND A HARD PLACE
The longstanding myth about cooking octopus is that making it palatable, let alone delicious, requires plenty of labour. With little fat, octopus flesh requires intense tenderising, which is typically done by massaging, blanching, blunt force or braising—or a combination of all those methods.
Traditionally, the Greeks beat octopuses over a rock up to 100 times as soon as they are caught, massaging the animals between blows until they start to foam. Japanese sushi chef Jiro Ono (that Jiro, who Dreams of Sushi), is known to require his octopuses be massaged for 40 to 50 minutes in order to render them tender enough for consumption.
Chef Aisbett says he massages the octopus with salt for about 15 minutes, which draws out the moisture and tenderises the meat. “Freezing also breaks down the octopus,” he added. “The texture changes as it thaws out.”
Octopuses caught in Spain and Portugal are widely regarded as the best for cooking. And since octopus spoils quickly, almost all imported octopus are cleaned and frozen before shipping, which helps the meat tenderise more quickly.
Most chefs here use the sous vide method of placing the octopus in a vacuum-sealed bag and cooking it in an 85-degree-Celsius water bath for up to four hours. “At this temperature, the octopus releases a lot of its moisture, giving it a meatier texture instead of a gummy feel,” said chef Chavez.
Once tenderised, the octopus needs little further preparation. Pollen’s Steve Allen says his favourite way to enjoy octopus is chilling the meat after cooking it sous vide, then slicing it to carpaccio-like thinness and serving it with a sweet lemon dressing and herbs.
Finishing the octopus over a hot grill is another popular preparation, which is what the chefs at Odette do. “We finish it in a Josper grill at high temperature to create a char and smoky flavour,” said senior sous chef Adam Wan. “It’s a really simple preparation, but the results are so delicious.”
AN OCTOPUS’S REACH
In the wild, the common octopus grows up to between 30 and 90 centimetres, and can weigh up to 10 kilograms. They live throughout the waters of the world, though according to the Environmental Defense Fund, populations in Mauritania and Vietnam are in poor shape, while Spain has the most stable octopus population.
Typically, large pods are released off the sides of fishing boats to capture the octopus. But it may not be as simple as waiting for the octopus to slide into the pods and hauling them back up. Thanks to their intelligent nature, octopuses can often open traps set with crabs or other seafood, enter the pods, eat the bait, and swim out happily, leaving the fisherman with less than they started with.
Because they are difficult and expensive to rear (their larvae’s taste for nothing but live seafood like prawns and crab isn’t cost-effective), octopuses have, until several years ago, escaped confined aqua-culturing. But recent years have seen success in the commercial rearing of these cephalopods, with a small cooperative on the Yucatan coast in Mexico finally rearing them from eggs after a decade of research and unsuccessful attempts, reported Scientific American in a 2013 article titled First Octopus Farms Get Growing. Early last year, a Spanish octopus fishery earned certification under the Marine Stewardship Council’s (MSC) Fisheries Standard, a first for a fishery of its kind.
While there is limited information on the stock status of octopus species caught in Australia, the country's Sustainable Seafood Guide states in its website that “octopus species are generally short-lived, grow and reach sexual maturity quickly, and produce a lot of offspring. Species of octopus are therefore reasonably resilient to fishing pressure”.
For chef Aisbett, choosing octopus from Fremantle was simply a question of choosing a produce from his native country. “I only choose seafood that I know is sustainable or wildcaught,” he added.
Chef Chavez says he buys octopus from Spain’s Galicia region. “That particular species is most suitable for my method of preparation. The tentacles are quite big and the texture is firm,” he explained. Chef Allen added that Spanish octopus is better suited for slowcooking.
Sustainability aside, chefs said treating the octopus with the same respect they accord any other animal is paramount, regardless of how smart the animal is said to be. Echoing the sentiment of all the chefs interviewed for this story, chef Wan said, “We seek to work with ethically sourced, humanely treated and sustainably harvested produce wherever possible. I believe the best way to honour good produce is to find the best way to cook it.”
And indeed, the ways are plenty. Chef Allen, for one, updates his octopus dish with each season and is currently experimenting with cooking it in brown butter, sage and lemon. “Many people think that octopus is a quintessentially Mediterranean dish or ingredient, but I want to change perceptions and introduce new and exciting flavours, like almonds, amaretto biscuits and pumpkin.”
This is a well-calculated move, if chef Chavez’s anecdote about trying to cook octopus the Spanish way is anything to go by. “When I was working in Spain, we used to marinate octopus in salt and then cold-smoke it overnight,” he recounted. “We tried that in Singapore, and most of our guests found it super salty and believed that we spoiled the preparation. We thought they were going to find it delicious, but obviously, we were wrong!”
It’s a good thing then that the drawing board for making octopus delicious is expansive, and with chefs all over the island putting exceptional octopus dishes on their menu, we reckon the crafty cephalopods won’t be gliding off our plates anytime soon.
page Freshly cooked octopus
Below Tono Cevicheria’s Peruvian octopus dish, Pulpo Al Olivo
From top Octopus in the wild can grow up to 10 kilograms; Pollen’s chef Steve Allen prepares octopus on a bed of bagna càuda
Below Just one of the many ways of preparing octopus at Odette