Before I came to Japan, I was convinced that I did not like octopus. My first and last experience with octopus in the states was a very chewy slab of tentacle on nigiri sushi. After trying to chew it for what seemed like five minutes, I gave up and decided it was inedible. Therefore, I was hesitant to waste my money here in Asia to try octopus again, but one night on our vacation in Korea, we were served grilled octopus with our Korean barbeque. Since it was free, I gave it a try and was instantly converted. It was fresh, soft and delicate, and without a strong flavor of its own so it complimented the spicy Korean chili paste. I spent the rest of our trip searching for octopus restaurants, and tried a really nice dish in Wakayama at Wara Wara, a chain restaurant here in Japan with cheap drinks and all food items under $5. Sounds corny, but it is actually quite tasty and served a dish of lightly grilled, thinly sliced octopus with a citrus vinaigrette. It inspired me to come home and create a similar dish, which can either be described as octopus ceviche or octopus carpaccio.
Neither name is accurate, since I don’t use raw octopus, but the concept of thinly sliced meat with seasoning is the same. Total cook time is under ten minutes, and I have impressed actual Japanese home cooks with this dish, so I can declare it tried and true. If you are skeptical about octopus, this is a great, inexpensive way to give it a try, or to impress your dinner guests. Here’s what you need:
Octopus: In Japan, it is easy to find cooked legs of octopus at any market. In the states, you will have to try an Asian market most likely. Once its cooked, the flesh will become opaque and lightly soft yet dense to the touch. You don’t want to buy a whole fresh octopus and cook it yourself, it is a ridiculously involved process and you will have more octopus than you’ll know what to do with. Just a small leg will do
Fresh basil: While it can be hard to find in Japan, the basil really makes this dish. I’ve made it before without the basil, using green onion instead and it is still pretty yummy, but opt for basil if you can. Only a small amount is needed
Lemon juice: If you can’t find fresh lemons in Japan, you can opt for the stuff they sell in bottles, or try buying yuzu instead
Olive oil: every grocery store in Japan seems to offer olive oil now.You don’t have to buy anything expensive, simple olive oil is fine
Ground black pepper
Chili oil (optional)
To prepare the octopus, I take a sharp knife and remove the suckers. I find them to be too chewy for this dish, so just trim along the edge of the leg until it is smooth.
Now use your knife to make thin, round slices down the leg. The thinner the better. If you have a very sharp mandoline you can try using it instead. Once you have the whole leg sliced, arrange the pieces spread out flat on a plate.
Sprinkle the octopus with lemon juice, and feel free to be generous. Now drizzle with a tablespoon of olive oil. Top with fresh ground pepper and basil chiffonade.
To slice your basil chiffonade, simply stack the leaves, roll them up and make clean vertical slices to create ribbons of basil.
Final optional touches are a couple drops of chili oil, balsamic reduction, or both! I like to add these to the edges of the plate for a nice visual touch. Serve as an appetizer or side dish to dinner. I find this particularly refreshing in summer, but as long as you can find octopus for sale, you can make it. Hopefully, you will discover how delicious octopus can be! Perhaps soon you will be as addicted to it as I am.