Common octopus is anything but

Story and slideshow by KEITH R. ARANEO-YOWELL

Go to any Asian food market in Salt Lake City, and you will likely find bags of deep, blood-red flesh packed in ice. Go to any sushi restaurant and you’re likely to see on the sashimi or nigiri menu an item called “tako” (pronounced like the Mexican “taco”). Buy or order it for the first time and you’ll likely change any previously held beliefs about octopus.

Long considered a delicacy in Mediterranean and Asian (especially Japanese) cuisine, octopus is thought of by many to be prohibitively tough to prepare and chew.

“It’s rubbery, hard to bite and it doesn’t break apart very easily, even when it’s fully cooked,” said George Mateo, a visitor to the Living Planet Aquarium in Sandy.

Still, others wouldn’t hesitate to try it. Mason Childs, 21, works as a server at Market Street Grill. He said, “If it was on our menu at work I would probably try it once or twice.”

Splendidtable.com contributor Mark Bittman writes, “If octopus is properly handled, without fuss, it is reasonably tender. It remains chewy, but so does lobster, or sirloin steak.”

Home cooks can reduce the rubbery texture of octopus using a number of different strategies.  These range from the unusual Italian method of boiling it with wine corks to the brutish, yet obvious, method of beating it against rocks.

Bittman wrote even though these methods are effective, the key to eliminating most of the toughness is slow cooking time at very low temperatures.

Sue Kim, the owner of the Oriental Food Market at 667 S. 700 East in Salt Lake City, said she probably only sells one bag containing four tentacles and the head of an adult common octopus every day on average.

Kim attributes the relatively low rate of sales to the “rubbery” label attached to octopus meat as well as its alien appearance, and at $24.99 per bag, and similar pricing in restaurants around town, it’s considered a delicacy and not a staple.

Nina Clark, 23, is an exercise and sports science major at the University of Utah who said she hopes to pursue a career in public health education. She said octopus is an uncommon dish in Utah because there’s no coast. “We’re not exposed to it,” Clark said. “We’re land-locked.”

Childs said he could see why some people would be hesitant to eat octopus. “They’re scary creatures. To think they can open a mason jar without hands and do it while sitting on top of it. They’re pretty violent in the ocean.”

Others hesitate because of the octopus’ unusual appearance. Lacy Mateo, 20, who was visiting the Living Planet Aquarium with her husband, George, said she would never eat octopus because of the suction cups. Clark expressed similar reservations because of the fluidity of octopus movement.

With a single bulbous sack (or mantle) housing all their internal organs, surrounded by eight suction cup-covered arms and skin that looks like it’s been dead for a number of decades along with its reputation for rubberiness, it’s no wonder Clark and the Mateos find the look of the meat “gross.”

For all their physical irregularities, however, John Lambert, aquarist at the Monterey Bay Aquarium, said they pale in comparison to the strange behaviors he observes on a daily basis.

They can change the color and texture of their skin in a blink of an eye to avoid detection from predators. An article that appeared in Advanced Aquarists Online Magazine described the mimic octopus, which reproduces the rough appearance and movement of more than 15 different marine species native to its habitat of tropical Southeast Asia.

While feeding cancer crabs to the Giant Pacific Octopi at the California aquarium, Lambert, 52, and Aquarium Communications Director Ken Peterson, 61, described the difficulty associated with keeping their two Giant Pacific Octopi, Nano and November.

“There was an institution that was losing fish out of one of its tanks,” Lambert said. “They set up a camera over night and discovered that an octopus in an adjacent tank was crawling out at night, making its way over to the tank the fish were in, and helping itself and then returning to its own exhibit.”

Peterson later added that it had actually happened at the Monterey Bay Aquarium.

Because of the octopi’s desire to explore outside their enclosures, all outer edges of the octopus habitats are lined with Astroturf, which “prevents the octopus from being able to get a grip on it with their suction cups,” Peterson said.

Despite anecdotes of rather adventurous octopi, they spend most of their time in small crevices between rocks on the sea floor and are, therefore, extremely hard to fish. A fisherman for Monterey Fish Co Inc., who wished only to be called Dane, said just shrimp-trapping boats in Monterey regularly catch octopus.

Because the only hard structure in their bodies is a small parrot-like beak where all its tentacles converge, octopi can fit through the extremely small holes in shrimp traps. Lambert also said octopi are apt problem solvers and shrimping traps don’t really pose a challenge.

“They’re certainly very intelligent animals,” Lambert said. “[Researchers] put an item in a jar with a screw lid and the octopus can figure out how to unscrew the lid and get to the item. The first time they see it, it will be a challenge, but they work at it. They’re very tenacious animals.”

Their intelligence and ability to deform their bodies causes problems for shrimping boats in Monterey. Dane said, “Octopi will crawl into the traps and eat the shrimp.”

Shrimpers in Monterey lose an indeterminable amount of money each year due to octopus. According to the California Department of Fish and Game’s 2010-2011 Ocean Sport Fishing Regulations, octopi can only be caught and kept if line or hand-caught.

“[Shrimpers] usually throw [octopi] back,” Dane said. One shrimper who doesn’t always follow regulations said, “If I’m going to lose my catch, I at least want to sell the thing that cost me my paycheck.” For obvious reasons, this fisherman asked that he and his boat not be identified.

With the exception of when fishermen actually bring in an octopus, it is very difficult to find restaurants in Monterey that serve octopus. This is partly due to the aquarium’s decade-long effort to raise awareness across the U.S. about common fishing practices.

The Monterey Bay Aquarium publishes reports on commonly eaten seafood items. According to the 2008 report for common octopus (the species that is sold for food), most of what is sourced for use in the American sushi industry is sold as common octopus, even if it is of a different species.

Kim said she orders the octopus in her store from a Japanese fishery.

According to the report, Kim’s octopus comes from either Morocco or Thailand where the preferred method of octopus fishing is a practice called bottom trawling, in which boats drag fishing nets along the sea floor.

Octopus distributors in Japan also work with fisheries in Spain that catch octopus in pots, which is an artificial habitat perfectly suited to octopus. These pots lie on the sea floor for two to three days before fishermen reel them back in to collect the octopi.

In either case, after it is caught, it is blanched and shipped to Japan to be prepared for sushi by removing the beak, the poison and ink glands, the eyes and the internal organs. It is then frozen and re-exported to the U.S.

Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch Program assesses the ecological sustainability as well as the safety of eating seafood items commonly found in U.S. fish markets. According to the report, “due to the difficulty associated with discerning the actual country of origin of octopus found in US sushi restaurants, [octopus] should be avoided as a general rule. While Spanish octopus (especially pot-caught) is a preferred alternative to North African and Vietnamese octopus, it is rare that sufficient sourcing information is available to the consumer.”

The report, however, does little to address the adverse health effects of heavy metals that continue to build in species moving up the food chain.

In their report titled, “Bioaccumulation of Lead, Calcium and Strontium and Their Relationships in the Octopus vulgaris,” researchers Sonia Seixas and Graham Pierce found that “aquatic animals take up and accumulate lead from water, sediment and food.”

Because there is no way to rid tissue of lead by natural means, Seixas and Pierce observed “concentrations higher than the maximum legally permitted concentration of lead in food.”

Being conscious of how food gets to the dinner plate is a crucial element in public health, exercise and sports science major Nina Clark said. “That’s a big reason I try to avoid seafood in general. I’m aware of the patterns of how fish is shipped, exported and re-exported.”

Market Street server Mason Childs said the surprise he felt learning how octopus gets to the dinner table in a land-locked region illuminates a good deal about his previously held beliefs about seafood and sustainability. At the end of the interview, he asked for a copy of Seafood Watch.

“Eating is one of the most intimate things humans do,” Clark said. “It’s crucial that we educate ourselves on the repercussions of our choices.”