Thursday, June 22, 2006

Eight Ways to Delicious

I ate octopus last night, and it wasn’t the first time. Some people might grimace at the idea of eating a boneless creature sporting suckered tentacles (which are actually classified as arms), but I’ve generally been pretty gustatorially adventurous. Whereas I’ve drawn lines at brains and eyeballs, snacking on your generic pulpo-in-a-sardine-can or tapas didn’t much phase me. It didn’t much thrill me, either, but as I tucked into the savory grilled octopus appetizer at Greek Kitchen, my thoughts meandered from exquisite memory to lingering guilt.

Flashback to the rainforest of Manuel Antonio, Costa Rica. It was the last location of three in our first trip to that varied and gorgeous country, chosen for it’s national park, beaches and gay resorts (no kidding). The Mrs. and I had just spent most of the day trekking through the rainforest and dipping in the ocean. True to the rainy season, it had been hot and humid, and the spoiled whinging of two adolescents on our guided tour had temporarily irked us into a funk. Spirits lifted by witnessing some much-maligned white-faced monkeys freely urinating on the annoying children, and genuinely grateful towards our eagle-eyed expert guide, who could spot a bat, sloth or iguana perched in a tree at a football field’s distance, we broke off for a hike on our own, and ended up walking long enough to edge into low-blood-sugar exhaustion. Reaching the edge of the park, we were delighted to find 1.) a local man with a pile of green coconuts, who would chop one open with a machete and hand it to you with a staw for one dollar, and 2.) the official park entrance with a small restaurant and parking area. Here, after sucking down some refreshing coconut juice, we could sit, snack, shelter from the storm that was just blowing in and grab a bus or taxi to take us back to our homo hacienda.

We couldn’t find a phone, but we sat in the open-porch-style restaurant and perused the menu. My Spanish was rudimentary, and the waitstaff at this particular café didn’t seem to understand much English, which was unusual for the area. Still, I was able to get by, albeit with some questionable conjugation and friendly pantomime. It was here that, finding myself craving both barbecue and fish, I found grilled pulpo on the menu and, despite Mrs. Nator’s skepticism, decided to try it.

It was nothing short of ambrosial. Slightly sweet and tender, with a smoky char on the outside, it was imbued with the flavours of its lemon, garlic, oil and chili sauce. Accompanied by a cold refresco, salad and beans with rice, it both soothed my savage appetite and piqued my taste buds. As a terrific thunderstorm opened up the skies on the beach before us, we sat snugly under the awning, pleasantly tired from our trek, filled with scrumptious food and delighted by the entire adventure. Despite being accosted by a clueless, young American couple who couldn’t find the bus stop or induce anyone to help them call a taxi (note to travelers: it helps if you are polite and learn at least please and thank you in the native tongue; screaming at the locals in English as though they are your personal servants will not get you anywhere, especially when you have not even bought so much as a stick of gum), we finished our leisurely meal and were helped with kind solicitude by the hostess, who called a cab to our hotel herself (rather than directing us to a payphone, as she had done with the other tourists, despite them protesting that they had no Costa Rican change, another dumb move).

So, it was with this fond memory that I savoured the Greek version of this delicacy. Of course, it couldn’t quite match that particular dining experience, but it was more than adequate. More’s the pity that I found myself feeling twinges of remorse. I felt this, you see, because I am rather fond of the octopus, as a creature. Sure, I am an animal freak, in general, and there are some dishes, like veal, I just can't conscience, but I am generally able to get through a hamburger or chicken wing with little more than a brief genuflection.

The thing is, octopi are just so darned cool. They are mobile masses of muscles and neurons, with parrot beaks, who live at the bottom of the sea. They pine for mates, escape from tanks, squish into improbable crevices, find their way through mazes and are thought to be at least as intelligent and personable as the average housecat. What’s more they can change their colours, mimic other creatures, and shoot away on jets of water leaving only clouds of ink behind them. Heck, some of them even walk on two legs, while disguised as inanimate objects! I mean, take a look at this video from the PBS program Nova and tell me it isn’t amazing.

My point being, they are much maligned and misunderstood, fascinating creatures of the unknowable sea, and it seems a shame to eat them. Too bad they’re so darn yummy!

Chilli Lemon Octopus

  • 2 kg baby octopus
  • 1 tablespoon fresh lemon rind, grated
  • 3/4 cup lemon juice
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 2 tablespoons hot chili sauce
  • 4 cloves garlic, crushed
  • Remove and discard heads and beaks from octopus, cut octopus in half.

    1. Combine octopus, rind, juice, oil, sauce and garlic in large bowl, cover, refrigerate 3 hours or overnight.

    2. Drain octopus from marinade and discard marinade.

    3. Add octopus to heated skillet or grill, cook over high heat until just tender.

    4. Plate with salad and enjoy!

    4 comments:

    Qenny said...

    I loved the fact that after expressing all the remorse you then gifted us with a lovely recipe :-)

    I've only had memorable octopus once, and that was in Turkey. It was incredible. I expected it to be rubbery, but it wasn't at all, just great texture, great flavour, and all in all a gastronomic delight.

    MEK the Bear said...

    I agree with you completely, awesome, and tasty creatures indeed!

    Dope on the Slope said...

    I'm a sucker for octopus.

    Convivium on 5th Avenue has a superb octopus appetizer. Just make sure you take out a second mortgage before you dine there. It's a bit on the pricey side.

    Da Nator said...

    I haven't tried the cephalopod at Convivium, but I know most of their stuff is good, if pricey. We don't go there often because they don't have many veggie entrees for Mrs. Nator, but thanks for the tip!