LIFE

ESSENTIAL INGREDIENTS The Splendid Octopus:
Forbidding Looks, Toothsome Texture

Octopus has long been a prized seafood served only on special occasions, such as ancestral rites or banquets. But thanks to the ever-increasing globalization of food supply chains, octopus is found on dinner tables more and more frequently and the range of dishes starring these mysterious creatures of the deep sea has grown more diverse nowadays.

Pre-cut samgyeopsal is being grilled on a hot gridiron. Charcoal-grilled, the pork belly delicacy is more flavorful and less fatty than pan-fried samgyeopsal.

What is the best way to cook octopus, that fascinating and nutritious mollusk of the deep sea? Everything about its flavor and visual appeal seems to depend on how it is boiled. Even for a fried dish, it has to be boiled first. A successful boiling guarantees the taste of all manner of octopus dishes.

It Takes Some Effort
Before boiling an octopus, one has to wash it well. Its slimy body has to be rubbed all over with salt and thoroughly cleaned, especially the rows of powerful suction cups on the underside of its tentacles. But as too much rubbing with rough salt might abrade the skin and make the meat salty, some suggest rubbing it with sugar or flour instead.
In southern European countries, such as Spain, Portugal, or Greece, another step is customary before boiling. The octopus is whirled in an “octopus tumbler” which looks like a washing machine. Or it is beaten all over with a meat mallet. People living along the Greek coast even used to beat octopuses against rocks to tenderize their meat.
In Korea, radish is commonly used when boiling octopus in order to soften it. Its whole body is rubbed and patted with grated radish, then boiled with more radish. The radish juice helps soften the octopus meat, and also neutralizes the fishy smell.
Boiling octopus with dried persimmon is said to have the same effect. Whereas in Japan, radish is added along with green tea leaves and red beans, in Italy octopus gets boiled with wine corks. Dried persimmon, green tea, red beans, and residual wine in the cork stopper all have tannin in common, so tannin appears to work some magic on octopus meat.
There are more than 300 kinds of octopuses living in the five oceans. Among them, only two kinds are caught along the Korean coast: the small chammuneo (Octopus vulgaris) and the large daemuneo (Enteroctopus dofleini), also known as the giant Pacific octopus. Both turn red when dried, so they are called pimuneo, meaning “blood octopus,” whereas those that are skinned and dried are called baekmuneo, “white octopus.”
The giant octopuses, caught in the deep East Sea, can weigh up to 50 kilograms when fully grown, and their tentacles can be as long as 3 meters or even longer. The small common octopus lives in spaces between stones in the shallow coastal waters of the South Sea: even the grown ones weigh only about 3.5 kilograms. An octopus has a large round head (actually a pocket of internal organs), a short body (which includes the brain and eyes), and eight tentacles. In Korea and Japan, the whole octopus is eaten, while in Mediterranean countries the head is usually cut off and thrown away.

The Exquisite ‘Blood Octopus’
When Koreans think of octopus dishes, the first thing that comes to mind is muneo sukhoe, thinsliced boiled octopus eaten dipped in a sauce of red chili paste and vinegar. For this dish, frozen octopus imported from the Philippines, Indonesia, Morocco, and China are more likely to be used these days as fewer and fewer octopuses are caught along the Korean coast, and prices have risen as a result. Since it’s hard to farm octopus, all imported octopuses are caught at sea.
In North Gyeongsang Province, a small octopus is boiled and served whole for banquets or ancestral rites. In Andong, an old town in this province known for its yangban aristocratic traditions, octopus has long been considered the most exquisite of foods; at ancestral rites or at formal dinners, no table should lack octopus to serve the guests. There is only one warning, an old wisdom, to avoid an upset stomach: do not eat gosari (fiddlehead fern, Pteridium aquilinum) and octopus together when partaking of sacrificial food from ritual tables.

Muneojo cut in the shape of chrysanthemums by Seo Yong-gi, a master artisan of traditional ceremonial food of South Jeolla Province. Dried octopus cut in various decorative shapes are displayed on the ceremonial tables of ancestral rites.

There is a tradition of cutting a large dried octopus in various decorative shapes for ceremonial use, which is called muneojo. The dried octopus is put in a jar for a while to be softened, and then cut into exquisite shapes, such as a chrysanthemum or a peacock, with a craft knife. Traditionally, the work was done by male members of the family ahead of memorial rites. Nowadays, however, this is rarely seen.
In Gyeongsang and Jeolla provinces, dried octopus pieces are added to enrich the flavor of the clear soup served at ancestral rites. Octopus is also a choice ingredient for the porridge that mothers are fed after giving birth. Porridge cooked with soaked dried octopus and jujube is said to help mothers recover more quickly from childbirth.
The octopus porridge of Jeju Island is touted as a stamina food for the haenyeo, the island’s famed female divers. First, well-soaked rice is stir-fried in a pan, and fresh octopus, pounded in a mortar beforehand, is added and let to simmer. Then the octopus is taken out and shredded before being returned to the pot to boil more. Its red skin dyes the porridge pink, and the meat is very tender. In Yeosu, a port city in South Jeolla Province, dried octopus is first washed carefully and soaked in lukewarm water for two hours, marinated overnight with several ingredients, and then steamed. Locals regard this steamed octopus as one of the finest octopus dishes around.
There are also other dishes, such as muneo hoemuchim, boiled and thin-sliced octopus mixed with cucumber and other ingredients; and muneo jorim, boiled and thin-sliced octopus simmered down in Japanese-style soy sauce.
At Pulperia Ezequiel, a restaurant in the small town of Melide in the Spanish province Galicia, Korean guests are not infrequently found. They enter the restaurant on tired legs, lugging large backpacks on an epic walk. They are modern-day pilgrims on the Road to Santiago de Compostela. Almost as soon as they arrive, they shout their order, “Pulpo (octopus), please!” They are ordering a Spanish dish similar to Korean octopus salad, the boiled and thin-sliced octopus mixed with olive oil and salt and sprinkled with a little spicy, red paprika.

In Gyeongsang and Jeolla provinces, dried octopus pieces are added to enrich the fl avor of the clear beef soup served at ancestral rites. octopus is also a choice ingredient for the porridge that mothers are fed after giving birth … the octopus porridge of Jeju Island is touted as a stamina food for the haenyeo, the island’s famed female divers.

Various Medicinal Effects
Like all good food ingredients, octopus is also taken for medicinal effects. As a folk remedy, octopus ink was used to help ease hemorrhoids, and water boiled with octopus to ease hives and frostbite. The water was also supposed to cure a stomach upset from eating too much beef.
Recently, octopus has garnered more attention due to the taurine it contains. Taurine, a kind of amino acid, is known to be effective in preventing blood vessel disease and Alzheimer’s. The white powder on dried octopus and squid is taurine, and octopus has the highest taurine content among all mollusks.

Muneo sukhoe, boiled and thin-sliced octopus eaten with a sauce of red chili paste and vinegar, is the favorite octopus dish of most Koreans.

Famous Octopus Restaurants
In 1955, the Yeongdong Line was opened to connect the ports of Gangwon Province and the inland regions of North Gyeongsang Province. Then, octopus caught in the East Sea and boiled came to be delivered by train across the mountainous countryside to the terminal station in Yeongju. Enroute to delivery in the ambient temperature of a slow train, the boiled octopus matured and gained more flavor. That’s probably the reason for the assertion that octopus eaten in Yeongju is especially tasty. With refrigerated distribution being the norm today, fresh octopus caught in the East Sea is delivered unprocessed to its destination, where it is boiled and then matured for a while before selling. The boiled octopus of Mukho Octopus House at Yeongju Market is renowned and highly sought after.
The octopus salad of the seafood restaurant Sanho in Sinsa-dong, Seoul, is known for its tenderness and fresh scent. Fresh octopus delivered from Masan, a southern port city, is boiled in a pressure cooker for 10 minutes, and then boiled again in an ordinary pot until tender.

Adding green tea powder, finely grated radish, and some of its inner organs into the boiling water is among the chef’s secrets.
The octopus salad of Goraebul, a restaurant in Yeoksam-dong, Seoul, is known for its special way of cooking: the octopus is only blanched, or parboiled. The meat under the cooked skin remains raw and leaves a fresh, briny aftertaste. While being boiled in water with kelp and radish, the octopus is put in and taken out several times to gradually cook the skin only. The restaurant owner explains that they use octopus delivered from Yeongdeok, an eastern coastal city in North Gyeongsang Province, which is famous for large snow crabs as well.

Soul Ho-joung Freelance Writer

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