By Alvin Starkman, M.A., J.D.
Octopus (pulpo) is a boon for the economy of Mexico. The country is the third largest producer worldwide, with most of the boneless invertebrate mollusk shipped to Spain, Japan and Italy. While there are about 300 species of octopus, most of the Mexican fisheries harvest only two types; Maya (red) and Vulgaris (patón). Almost all (±95%) the nation’s octopi (plural is also octopuses and octopodes) comes from three states – Baja California, Campeche and Yucatán, the latter boasting over 65% of the nation’s production. It’s no wonder that pulpo is such a popular menu item throughout the country.
Inhabiting every ocean, the octopus is really quite a fascinating sea creature, so much so that I occasionally question whether or not I should allow it to continue to be my go-to restaurant dish in high-end eateries. But my taste buds typically trump all.
Octopi are the most intelligent of all invertebrates. Some scientists believe they actually have individual personalities. We know for certain that they are predominantly solitary animals, with uncanny problem solving and survival mechanisms that would make Darwin proud, yet their lifespan is no more than five years, and at times as short as six months.
Octopuses have been known to play with toys, unscrew lids, solve puzzles, interact with human caretakers, display different temperaments including opinions about people, build dens out of rocks for inhabiting, and even place a rock on the entranceway once safely at home to preclude entry by predators (e.g., depending on the particular oceanic region, they include seals, eels, halibut, other fish and even larger octopodes).
While octopi are deaf, their other senses are finely honed. Its head (mantle) contains all vital organs including three hearts, one of which pumps the blue blood through the entire body, and the other two through the gills. The suckers on its arms move independently of one another, enabling the mollusk to grip, taste, smell and manipulate. Each arm is therefore akin to an army of brains. The octopus jet-propels itself seemingly backwards head-first through the water, at a speed of up to 25 MPH. This allows it to easily both avoid predators and catch its meal (crabs, shrimp, young small octopi and other mollusks).
While the octopus is an invertebrate, it possesses a hard beak capable of breaking through the shells of its prey. The octopus’ soft body enables it to contort itself so much so that it can hide in between seemingly inaccessible areas of rock crevices, serving it well as both as hunter, ready to pounce, and hunted, out of sight sound and smell.
Octopuses are venomous, though almost none of the species are so much so that they can be fatal to human beings. However, the venom does serve an important purpose. The venom is contained in its ink; when the octopus is avoiding predators or seeking prey, its release of the dark liquid provides a smoke screen and temporarily freezes the predator/prey.
While everything about the octopus is impressive, its ability to camouflage is perhaps its most incredible feature. On the turn of a dime, the mollusk uses its sharp eyes to match the patterns, colors and textures of its surroundings. Given that it is colorblind, this ability is even more mystifying.
For the seafood aficionado, pulpo contains a large amount of protein, is a rich source of vitamins B3 and B12, and is packed with with potassium, iodine, selenium, calcium, sodium and phosphorus.
We tend to relish the opportunity to steam lobster and spice up our lives frying up a plethora of shrimp recipes, but typically omit pulpo from our repertoires that impress house guests. Despite the attributes of octopi noted above, perhaps it’s time to try your hand at a recipe. While pulpo is usually rather expensive in restaurants, it’s much less so if prepared on a grill at home.
RECIPE FOR GRILLED OCTOPUS
For those residing close to the coast, of course it’s advisable to buy your octopus fresh from the fisherman. Do try to get him to clean it because it’s messy and time consuming doing it yourself. Mexican seafood retailers tend to sell them cleaned, frozen and ready to cook. This recipe assumes you are using a cleaned, frozen octopus.
1. Defrost, slowly in the fridge if possible.
2. In a large pot of boiling water, while holding onto the head dunk the body (arms) into the water three times before then fully submerging it and leaving to boil about 40 minutes (theoretically, that makes the tentacles curl up restaurant-style). You can add herbs, spices and/or salt to the water, but it’s not necessary because (a) it’s salty by nature, and (b) seasoning will subsequently be added.
3. Allow to cool for up to a couple of hours.
4. Cut off the arms where they meet the body.
5. Separately cut off the upper portion to close to where it meets the head, and cut into pieces an inch or two in size.
6. Marinate for an hour or so in olive oil, fresh minced garlic, salt, pepper and fresh chopped parsley.
7. Clean and oil the grill (use olive oil), and pre-heat to a high temperature.
8. Turn down the grill to 50% heat and immediately place each piece on it, in the case of the arms for 3 – 4 minutes each side, longer for the upper body portions.
9. Place the nicely grilled pieces on serving dishes, sprinkled with salt, pepper and chopped parsley, then lightly drizzled with olive oil.
Try it this way the first time, then for subsequent preparation experiment with different herbs and spices to taste.
Alvin Starkman operates Mezcal Educational Excursions of Oaxaca