Saina Oji had never touched an octopus before. As she held one up gingerly, she wasnt sure what to do with it. It felt slimy and she took a moment to reflect. Roast it is, she decided, and began prepping for her maiden octopus challenge. Her team joined in, chopping onions and tomatoes and peeling garlic.
At a recent seafood festival held on the Central Marine Fisheries Research Institute (CMFRI) campus in Kochi, the octopus was the chief attraction.
My fish dishes are usually good. But the octopus was a daunting task, says Saina, a member of the Society For Assistance to Fisherwomen (SAF), who took charge of the cooking for the three-day festival. SAF is an agency under the Department of Fisheries, Kerala, to help fisher-women set up micro-enterprise units. Saina, whose husband was a fisherman, has taken the lead in many such food festivals organised by the fisheries department.
Taking suggestions from the officials, Saina made some of her favourite dishes, substituting fish with octopus. The menu therefore had octopus puttu and octopus biryani, both of which were hits. On the last day I had people queuing up for more; many wanted recipes, some wanted me to make octopus cutlets, she says.
Organised by the Marine Biological Association of India (MBAI) on the sidelines of an international symposium on marine ecosystems, the festival was aimed at creating awareness on the culinary potential of the octopus, along with other Cephalopods such as squids, cuttlefish, clams and mussels. Unlike the other Cephalopods, octopus is not traditionally consumed in India. Rich in Omega-3 fatty acids, it is known to have health benefits such as reducing hypertension and hyperglycaemia.
The species commonly found on the Kerala coast are the web-foot octopus (Amphioctopus Fangsiao), the old woman octopus (Cistopus Indicus) and the common octopus (Octopus Vulgaris), all relatively small in size, says Dr K Sunil Mohammed, principal scientist at the CMFRI. We only discovered the export potential of Cephalopods in the 1970s. Earlier, even squid was not so popular in India as it is today, he says. India produces over 200,000 tonnes of Cephalopods every year, most of which is exported mainly to Spain, Portugal, Italy and Japan. Out of this, octopus constitutes an average of 10,000 tonnes, he says. Commonly used in Mediterranean, Greek, Japanese and Korean cuisine, the global unit price for octopus is around $ 6-7 per kilo. We have no local demand for it yet, and hence it is not easily available in the local market, says Sunil.
Caught in trawl-fishing, it is usually found off Kochi, Beypore and Kollam along the Kerala coast. We get a good quantity from the East coast as well, says Faraz Javeed, Director of Abad Fisheries, which exports 500-600 tonnes of octopus per year. We have a very small, niche market for it here. But we still do get orders. Octopus is available at Abad Fisheries outlets (at approximately 150 a kilo). The octopus is very often available in the local markets of Goa, Mumbai and Mangaluru, says consultant chef and food stylist Ramu Butler, who runs a multi-cuisine restaurant, B at Bay, in Kochi. However, most of the octopus what he uses for his salads are the frozen and canned.
Though regular diners may find it alien, the octopus has always made an appearance in special seafood showcases at fine dining hotels in Kochi.
While Saina cooked hers in a thick gravy of naadan fragrant masala, which had coriander, Kashmiri red chilli powder, turmeric, garlic and green chillies, Executive Chef of Casino Hotel, Shaikh Asif Ali has tried octopus salads with success. The meat is hard and turns rubbery if it is over-cooked. It should be only blanched, he says. Asif usually prepares pasta and salads with baby octopus, though he says, the bigger ones have more flavour.
Ramu Butler prefers a salad, too. A salad is the best bet. Octopus is suited for oriental cuisine; a stir-fry or even in main course such as a mixed fried rice. But a baby octopus salad is more sought-after. We use small octopuses, and it is not cut; but placed with the tentacles, doused in balsamic vinegar, on a bed of greens. It adds crunch to the salad. In India, many still consider it a cultivated taste.