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.



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.”


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

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