From its eight, independently functioning tentacles covered in thousands of regenerative suckers, to its rich nutritional content and wonderfully smooth, spongy texture, the noble octopus has fascinated evolutionary scientists, marine biologists, and culinary experts for decades. Its mystical nature has led us meager humans to develop legends about its past, such as the Kraken detailed in many Norse sagas. We did so rightfully, as it is considered to be the most intelligent and creative invertebrate. Funny enough, octopuses have more genes than we do and possess similar motor skills, so there’s a lot to be said for our attempt to conceptualize the behavior of our mighty mollusk. There are simply too many mind-bending fun facts about octopuses, so here’s a short list of some of the most intriguing elements of their nature:
Octopuses have three hearts: 2 peripheral hearts pump blood through their gills, and the central heart circulates their blood.
Most of their neurons are in their arms, which allows them to solve multiple problems with their arms at a time, regenerate severed arms, and even move detached arms.
They can drastically change the size of their body and the color and texture of their skin to camouflage in rocks and coral reefs. They will also use their camouflaging capabilities to mimic deadly predators in order to scare away larger marine animals.
They have a distinct short-term and long-term memory similar to that of humans.
They are able to learn as quickly as many primates, including young humans. Octopuses can solve puzzles, use tools, and open jars from the inside out.
Video Courtesy of Dive&Discover via Youtube
I personally believe that octopuses should be everyone’s favorite animal, but I may be biased considering this sensational cephalopod has been my favorite marine animal ever since I was a young age. My collection of octopus figurines covered every inch of my bedside table, and every book I could get my hands on provided pages upon pages, chapters upon chapters for my buoyant young mind to digest. I am convinced that uncovering the mysteries of this alien-like family will keep me young, in more ways than one I should add.
A serving of octopus is loaded with lean complete proteins, omega 3 fatty acids, and heart-healthy nutrients like magnesium, selenium, and vitamin B12. They’re also packed with eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), two fatty acids that have been shown to lessen depression symptoms, as well as taurine, an amino acid that has antiviral and antioxidant properties. In spite of these magnificent benefits, I only tried octopus for the first time this summer; I was hooked from the first bite. It’s a very difficult protein to work with, but when done correctly, the tender, melt-in-your-mouth texture delivers a sensory euphoria across your tongue and hard palate.
Octopus is usually on the expensive end of the menu because it is found in limited supply; it’s elusive nature and outsmarting intelligence make it very difficult to catch. Since it is a hot commodity, large scale octopus fisheries around the world have overfished octopus. Industrial fishing practices have also endangered octopus habitats and the octopus population. Bycatch, which is unintentionally killing a sea creature, is another major threat to octopus populations, as many different species will get caught in nets and traps intended for other marine animals. Particularly off the coasts of West Africa and Southeast Asia, octopus populations are dangerously low due to unsustainable fishing practices.
When one decides to eat octopus, it should be on rare occasion, and it would be ideal to consume octopus from a Mediterranean nation, such as Spain, where octopus populations are more stable. When eating out, ask the waiter where the restaurant obtains their octopus supply to ensure that you are consuming responsibly and ethically. As with all animal proteins, eating octopus means taking a life to feed another. If you choose to eat octopus, it should come from a restaurant that not only sources their octopus ethically, but is sure to use the entire octopus to prepare a lip-smacking and life-changing dish. While there aren’t many establishments that bridge sustainability and delectability, there are a select few with remarkable octopus dishes that tend to hide on the street corners of the Ukrainian Village, Alphabet City, and the West Village.
In the spirit of their three hearts, here are my 3 favorite places in Downtown Manhattan to order octopus:
Huertas - 107 1st Ave.
Huertas introduced me to the versatility of octopus as a culinary ingredient in the best way possible. Upon the first bite, I could’ve sworn there was melted cheese on top, but no, the octopus was simply that tender, creamy and sensational. Simply dusted with paprika and presented alongside some sliced potatoes, Huertas’ octopus speaks for itself. The rustic cutting board presentation juxtaposed with the succulent octopus wonderfully captures this creature’s unearthly yet fascinating demeanor.
Ruffian - 125 East 7th Street
Yes, you’re seeing this correctly. This is Ruffian’s “Octo-Dog,” featuring their confited octopus swaddled in a steamed sourdough bun and topped with pickled red cabbage and green sauce. The confited octopus bursts with flavor upon first bite, releasing the wonderful taste of the sea that plays with the tangy pickled cabbage and soft sourdough bun. It’s simple but each element is well-crafted, making this dish a very fun and exciting experience. The octo-dog also pairs beautifully with any of Ruffian’s fine Austro-Hungarian white wines.
Osteria 57 - 57 West 10th Street
I can confidently say that Osteria 57’s octopus appetizer changed my life. From the incredible smoky sear on the octopus, to how it paired beautifully with the hardy eggplant caponata and potato puree, to the lovely compliment from the mint leaves on top, this entire dish left my jaw dropped yet eager to consume more and more. Each bite transported me to the shores of the Mediterranean, allowing me to live in a fantasy where nothing mattered except for this octopus dish and my taste buds. I will eagerly return to Osteria 57 just to have this octopus dish again, and it has set my standards very, very high.