Written by Christine Galanti
I will probably never be a vegetarian. Which is not to say that I’m opposed to this way of eating; I can relate to the political, philosophical, and personal reasons for not eating meat. And it’s also not about disliking vegetables–I could not live without them (especially the purple ones). I just love eating animals so very much. (Even Steve Jobs, notorious for eating only carrots or apples for weeks on end, was known on occasion to voraciously devour a rotisserie chicken, with his bare hands.)
I, too, love tearing apart a thigh or drumstick with my fingers. I love that I can chomp down on the entirety of a soft-shell crab. For me, red meat should always be rare (or, as my aunt orders it, “still mooing”). I even love the parts that are considered the unmentionables, the nasty bits: tongue, heart, marrow. So what follows is a bold declaration, and one that I’ll stand behind: creatures’ tastiest features are the babies and the faces.
Several years ago at my old sushi haunt, Sushi Yoshi, as my trained eyes scanned the menu for the same favorites I always ordered, I felt a pang of ennui when I realized I wouldn’t be satiated with a lip-smacking piece of mackerel or creamy scallop. Here began my first encounter with baby octopus. These are not the palm-sized variety you may have been served at a Mediterranean restaurant, although those are a treat. I’m talking tiny baby octopi, so diminutive in stature they might bathe in a thimble.
$3.90 got me two of these teensy suckers–or, I should say, sucker-covered suckers. When my sashimi platter was served, I found these little guys standing upright next to the rainbow of sliced fish. I was so charmed by their petite proportions, I wasn’t even thinking about eating them. They were so damn cute, like the fuzz on a kitten’s ear. I spent a few moments marveling at the how identical a baby octopus looks to a real octopus (at least, according to what I’d learned from cartoons and t-shirts screen-printed in Brooklyn), just on a miniature scale. This was the most adorable food I’d ever seen. Sorry, Cookie Puss®, you’ve been out-cuted.
At this point, there was nothing left to do with the octopus but pop it in my mouth. The flavor surprised me: it tasted a little bit like smokehouse barbeque. I couldn’t tell you how they prepared the beasties, but one thing I knew for sure: I wanted a bucket of them to eat like popcorn at the movies.
Anytime I see jaw or cheek on a menu, I feel pretty certain it will be a winner. These are delicacies, and chefs tend to treat them as such. A common chicken breast never seems receive the kind of love and attention that goes into the preparation of a face. Case in point: salmon head at Chez Sardine.
Casey, my dining partner in crime, split the order with me despite having reservations about eating even half, because she’s not a fan of salmon. [Editor’s note: I was, however, beside myself with excitement at the creamy, salty, hot-and-cold beef and uni bites, which were so eye-rollingly good we almost ordered another round instantly. I’ll have to write my ode to sea urchin ‘nads at a later date.]
The salmon head arrived and we were delighted to find the fish was lightly fried, with a slathering of sweet-and-savory miso-maple sauce. Even Casey, who admits to being turned off by the particular oily flavor of cooked salmon, was pleasantly surprised that it completely lacked the resinous “fishiness” she dislikes. The server returned to encourage us to break the jaw to get at the last tiny pieces of fish, only to find that we’d long since flipped the thing over and picked it clean.
Enjoying less-common meats is not about shock value or recycling discards. It’s about appreciating the value of the whole creature, not just the fillets of a fish or the “nuggets” on a chicken. Making grateful, conscious use of the entire animal is a central notion of many culinary cultures throughout history, from the Native Americans to the Italians. So the next time you see hamachi collar, lengua tacos, or even roasted cornish hen (a young hybrid bird), give it a taste. If made it onto the menu, it’s gotta be good.
Christine Galanti is a kangaroo-cooking, five-dollar-Polish-dinner-hunting, baby-octopus loving freelance writer in New York.