Despite Boston’s famed coast and the city’s culinary penchant for seafood, octopus has always been notoriously elusive. With skin capable of changing color and a jet of ink to cover their tracks, these soft-bodied, easy to eat mollusks — no, they’re not fish — appear to possess every conceivable characteristic to help them evade capture (or even just being located).
However, recently they have become easy to spot in Boston restaurants of all kinds — from Mediterranean to Japanese, and from Middle Eastern to Italian. Read on for five fast facts about one of Boston’s favorite foods:
1. Supply and demand
Most of the octopus we currently consume in the U.S. comes from Spain. While octopus has been a popular seafood staple in East Asia, Spain, Greece and various other countries for centuries, it only recently gained popularity in the U.S. and other countries. But it seems that we’re not alone in our penchant for the mollusks: according to U.S. Census and Urner Barry’s Foreign Trade Data, U.S. imports of octopus reached a record level last year, weighing in at just over 18,000 total metric tons. It seems that everyone just can’t get enough.
2. Get a feel for the taste
With firm, smooth and slightly bumpy skin — complete with “suckers” — octopus probably does not quite feel like anything (or at least like any food) you’ve ever felt before. And when it’s on offer for dinner (or lunch), it can adopt an entirely new feel: the best preparation will result in a product both firm, chewy and — most importantly — never rubbery. It’s a texture that can present a challenge for even the most expert chefs, but if cooked correctly, the unique resulting flavor — both slightly sweet and reminiscent of the salty sea — can’t be beat.
3. On the market
The variety of ways octopus is on offer at supermarkets and markets are as diverse as the culinary combinations that this ingredient inspires. On a quest to purchase octopuses, foodies and chefs alike will find that they can be purchased in raw form — and sometimes even live — or already boiled, cut and shrink-wrapped. Dried and frozen varieties are also frequent market finds — especially in the U.S. — because the freezing process helps tenderize the fish, making it easier to cook (best done at an extremely high or low temperature for a long time).
4. A salutary seafood
These mollusks are not only tasty — they’re also good for you. Lean, low in calories and naturally high in iron, octopus also contains ample amounts of vitamin B-12, an essential vitamin for metabolism, creating new blood cells and supporting everyday brain functions, and selenium, a trace mineral involved in protein metabolism during digestion that also acts as an antioxidant. Treating your body well has never tasted so good.
5. It’s all in the cuisine
There are countless ways to prepare octopus, depending on what kind of cuisine you crave. In Japanese food, it is usually minced or diced, and a common ingredient in sushi, among other dishes. In Korea, octopus is sometimes eaten alive, while in Portugal, diners typically enjoy it Lagareiro style: roasted with potatoes, herbs, onion, garlic and olive oil. And in Singapore, octopus legs are part of a famous national delicacy.
Where to find it
Many of Reserve’s Boston restaurant partners have one thing in common: they feature octopus on their menus. But the similarities end there — each dish is as distinct as the kitchens they are prepared in. This summer, try one, or try them all:
This Middle Eastern-inspired New American restaurant in Brookline serves up octopus on two different warm dishes: one features Spanish octopus with spiced potato and celery salad, while the other spotlights crispy smoked octopus with lentils, chraimeh and a poached egg.