Chef talk: the octopus trend
Octopus has long played a central role in the mythology and cuisine of many cultures, from Japan and Hawaii to the Mediterranean – particularly Spain and Greece. Madeline Woolway investigates the kraken-like tentacles’ growing popularity among Australian chefs.
Although octopus is eaten the world over, Australia’s current penchant for the denizens of the deep is heavily influenced by Mediterranean flavours and cooking techniques. If the present trend is anything to go by chefs are intrigued by how the Portuguese, Italian and Greek cuisines handle octopus, and even more so, the Spanish.
At Flying Fish in Sydney, head chef Ian Royle eschews plating up tentacles, opting instead to confit baby octopus for inclusion in a Spanish influenced salad.
“A lot of people expect to have baby octopus grilled. At Flying Fish we confit ours in olive oil, thyme, rosemary and slow cook it for about three to four hours,” he said.
“[Because of] the Spanish influence we serve it with polenta and scallops, just to make it more luxurious. The scallop has a clean white flesh and then the octopus has the deeper seafood flavour, so you can have a break from that stronger octopus flavour with a nice fresh scallop. The polenta lengthens the dish and then we use olives to lighten it up. It’s all about balance.
“When marrying ingredients I look at traditional European ways of using them. So, with octopus, which is used a lot by Greeks and the Spanish, I tend toward what is traditional but I break it down to then re-form as my own dish in the context of a modern restaurant.”
The dish, which has been on the menu since November last year, isn’t the first example of a successful octopus and scallop pairing at Flying Fish, but in this iteration the addition of salty native Australian greens like karkalla and seablight is proving particularly popular.
“It’s very popular; it’s probably the most popular octopus dish I’ve put on,” Royle told Hospitality.
Baby octopus salad from Flying Fish.
At the recently opened Abacus Bar & Kitchen in Melbourne, head chef Chris Connelly has also taken a Spanish approach to the preparation of octopus.
“I spent four years living on an island off the coast of Spain. We use to beat the octopus with a rake to tenderise it. These days the fishmongers tenderise it in a machine. Then we boil the tentacles quickly in really salty water for about four minutes, take it out and cook it in a mixture of vinegar, bay leaves, a bit of olive oil and some parsley,” he said.
“That’s the octopus in its soft stage, ready to go. Then we get a bit more ‘cheffy’ about it. We keep one tentacle for ‘carpaccio’, which we press while it’s still at about 40–45 degrees. It’s wrapped in cellophane so that the natural gelatin in the octopus tentacles sets. We put the smaller tentacles in a jar and pickle them for a few days, then chargrill them. The ‘carpaccio’ gets sliced wafer thin – it has to go in the freezer for a while to get a good slice on it – then it all gets assembled.
“Having that Spanish influence, we serve it with chorizo that’s been split open, lime aioli and verde. The verde is really pungent, glossy on the plate and really green, with a lovely texture and the aioli is finished with finger limes.
“The dish is designed around the octopus, the centerpiece is the tentacle. I like to char it nicely because I think that’s the best way to serve it and that’s how it’s traditionally served in Spain.”
Confit and charring aren’t the only ways to prepare octopus, with both chefs agreeing it’s a versatile ingredient.
“You can cook it almost anyway,” said Connolly. “The Greek way and the Spanish way of doing it are completely different in style. The chargrill is nice because of the meaty texture, but it’s very versatile once you’ve tenderised it.
“We’ll be including it on our fish pizza, and it could work well in the morning with chargrilled vegetables or heirloom tomatoes, baguette, a nice chunk of goat’s feta with a mellow vinegar. I haven’t seen it on breakfast menus, but it’s something I might try in 2017.”
And while octopus is currently experiencing a spike in popularity, it’s set to remain a sustainable choice for chefs in the foreseeable future, with Connolly saying there’s lots of the healthy, clean cephalopod around. Conversely, as demand increases, suppliers are picking up the slack.
“We get ours from Freemantle. Back in the day you had to beat it, but now there are companies that are processing the octopus, cleaning them right up and selling them as legs,” said Royle.
“They look after it really well. We normally like to prep all our raw ingredients form scratch but if there are companies out there really looking after seafood as much as we do then we like to support them as much as we can.
“We never have supply issues. They’re abundant – the catch is great. As for the public wanting more and more, I don’t think there’s an issue at the moment.”
Lakes Entrance octopus and chorizo from Abacus Bar & Kitchen.