We are in the Golden Age of Octopus. It’s not clear exactly when it happened, but seemingly out of nowhere, octopus popped up on the menu of every chef-driven restaurant in America. It makes sense. As the economy continues to drive restaurants to cut food costs, octopus has emerged as the perfect protein. Both cheap and satisfying, it’s meatier than most seafood and gives chefs the chance to really showcase their skills because octopus is one of those ingredients that’s terrible if it isn’t perfect. It’s a crowd-pleaser, too. For those sick of seeing short ribs and pork belly all over the place, octopus offers a refreshing (and much leaner) change of pace in the cheap protein category. Octopus is the right ingredient at the right time and now it’s having its day in the sun (note: don’t leave octopus out in the sun).
Even though it appears to have made a furious comeback, the popularity of octopus is not really new at all. Mark Bittman dove deep into a previous resurgence of the eight-legged cephalopod back in 1999 with an essay called “Octopus Demystified.” It just seems new because most Americans have never adopted octopus as a favorite food. By and large, we are not a nation of octopus lovers. That’s most likely because there isn’t a lot of octopus being caught by American fishermen. The Spanish, the Greeks, the Italians and the Japanese are all much more octopus-savvy than we are, and their food cultures all represent the fact that octopus is more readily available in their nations’ waters. The lack of popularity may also be due to the fact that octopus is a nasty-looking sucker, pun fully intended.
The octopus is a cephalopod, just like squid and cuttlefish, which means they have very thin, dense muscle fibers. This makes them much stronger than other fish and also more difficult to cook. In his seminal tome On Food and Cooking, food scientist Harold McGee argues that in order to avoid toughness, you have to cook it “either barely and briefly… or for a long time to break down the collagen.” Most chefs seem to agree. Andrew Kirschner (Tar & Roses in Santa Monica, CA) says he likes “to braise it until it’s perfectly tender and then grill it up and put a little char on it.” The Tasting Kitchen‘s Casey Lane feels the same way. He prefers it braised in olive oil because it becomes “a sort of confit [that] gives octopus a very pleasant snap-to-succulent ratio.” At Marino Ristorante, where octopus has been on the menu for 30 years, they use a different approach to match up with the warm days of Southern California. Chef Sal Marino serves it cold “just boiled and sliced, [with] celery, olive oil, black and green olives.” It doesn’t matter what temperature it’s served at – the key to good octopus is clearly achieving that perfect tenderness.
It doesn’t matter what temperature it’s served at – the key to good octopus is clearly achieving that perfect tenderness.
Octopus is appealing to chefs for a variety of reasons, but the most popular one seems to be its texture. Chef Quinn Hatfield (Hatfield’s & The Sycamore Kitchen in LA) puts it eloquently: “Octopus is just texturally interesting to cook with. I don’t think there’s much else that accomplishes the textural profile that you get from octopus.” That texture comes from their unique muscular composition. If you’re going to cook it at home, McGee recommends simmering the octopus for at least an hour. A long braise breaks down the collagenous fibers and creates a “silken succulence” that you just don’t find with most other seafood. If you have a choice in your tentacle selection, Hatfield suggests using medium-sized tentacles because they provide a better texture in the end.
Finding octopus can prove to be a significant challenge for the home cook. As with most specialty products, ethnic grocery stores are an excellent resource. Asian supermarkets are an especially good bet. The Assi Supermarket in LA’s Koreatown neighborhood has a live tank of baby octopi and you can’t get much fresher than that. Most of the chefs quoted here get their octopus from Spain (or occasionally Japan) and there’s a big debate about whether or not frozen octopus is acceptable. Lane swears by fresh and pays extra for the privilege, but the other chefs see flash-frozen as an acceptable evil because of the fragility of the product and the distance it has to travel to get to their kitchens.
Octopus is really having its moment and there are big things in store for octopus-lovers from coast to coast.
Octopus is really having its moment and there are big things in store for octopus-lovers from coast to coast. In a few months, Casey Lane will open ITRI in West Hollywood, where he’ll be the first chef in LA serving “rotisserie octopus.” He’ll start by braising tentacles and then let them roll on the rotisserie to give them a smoky flavor while they slowly caramelize and crisp up on the outside. Roberto Santibañez recently told us that he’s been sneaking octopus enchiladas onto the menu at his two Fonda locations in New York City. “Octopus enchiladas are delicious,” he says.
It’s not a stretch to imagine street vendors taking a cue and serving charred octopus on the streets of cities nationwide. After all, it’s cheaper than any fish and easily beats out calamari in the flavor department. If you’re octopus-averse, you need to get over your fear. The octopus movement is just gaining steam here in America and you’d be well-served to join the cephalopod revolution. Perhaps the term “Golden Age of Octopus” seems outdated for this modern octo-renaissance. Instead, let’s call it Octopi the Menu.