Samui Wining & Dining
Catch of the Day

Get chewing, with some tasty Thai octopus!

 

2-3Well, if it’s octopus that you’re actually eating, then that’s how you’ll know! It’s even chewier than Thai beef – although both of these can be very nice if prepared and cooked in the right way. But it has to be said that, in Thailand, it’s quite rare to come across octopus. Squid, on the other hand, and cuttlefish, are plentiful here, and you’ll find them in all sorts of environments, from the markets to the street stalls and even in bright little flat plastic packets in 7-11. On an island that sees fresh seafood every day, it’s hard to escape from these little encephalopods, even if you wanted to!

      So what’s the difference? Well, all these creatures are related to the snail family and live in salt water between the temperate zones and the tropics. However, octopuses are basically one great big lump, like a huge ‘nose’, that sits on top of eight legs extended all around. They live on the seabed, favouring holes and crannies in the rocks and coral from which to snare their prey. They’re solitary creatures and can grow to quite a size – the largest recorded was a North Pacific giant, weighing 71 kilograms and with an arm span of over nine metres. Although it has to be said that this is actually a different sub-species of the ones that are usually hunted or fished for the table, which are generally not much bigger than a soup bowl.

      Squid on the other hand are quite different. They’re jolly little chaps and usually hang about in a crowd, free-swimming and mostly avoiding the seabed. Their essential shape is quite different: the body is long and torpedo-like, with ten stubby tentacles sprouting out all together at the front. Additionally, although both octopus and squid propel themselves by squirting out jets of water, the squid possess one solitary bone, which is missing from the octopus family. It’s a structure known as a ‘pen’ that acts as a flexible backbone and also a jet tube from which it squirts the water to move itself along.

      Although herds of these nice little squid are common, there also exists the monsters of the deep, and these guys are not quite so pleasant. If you thought the big octopuses were a bit scary then you’d better avoid the ‘mesonychoteuthis hamiltoni’, otherwise known rather unimaginatively as the ‘Colossal Squid’. Imagine a school bus. Then stick some tentacles on it, make it 1,000 kilograms in weight and 60 feet long with eyes the size of footballs. They became big for quite a different reason to the comparatively mini-sized octopuses. They’re only found in deep water and in ocean trenches, and are caused by a phenomenon called ‘deep-sea gigantism’.

      The squids’ ancestors were smaller, but as the squid migrated to deeper waters, they had to evolve into bigger creatures to deter larger predators. Plus, at greater depths, less food was available. They had to travel longer distances to find food, so size – and the endurance that came with it – became an evolutionary advantage. Giant squid might make for a lot of calamari – but I wouldn’t like to put money on how tender it would be.

      If you spend any time at all on Samui then you’ll notice something odd happening at night. Not so far out to sea you might hear a rhythmic slapping sound. If there’s enough light to see, there will also be a small boat and a fisherman who is whacking the water to drive the fish towards his net. Well, he is at the bottom end of the food chain so to speak, and is probably just catching his supper. There are hardly any fish close to the beaches here. For this you need to go out to the deeper waters around and beyond Koh Pha-Ngan..

       This is where the big fishing boats go, the ones with three or four people in the crew. If you’ve ever been waiting for the ferry to leave from Nathon, you’ll see dozens of these boats moored up at the pier, usually hosing down and re-supplying for the next trip out. There is a triangle of deep water between the mainland coastal city of Chumpon, Koh Tao and Koh Samui, and this is where most of the fish are to be found. And that includes the shoals of squid.

      The technique is to mount powerful lights sticking out on booms on one side of the boat, and place a long hammock net on the opposite side, wait for a while, and pull the net up. Squid are attracted to the lights from deeper water but it’s too bright, so they mill about in the shadow of the boat, where the net catches them.

       Interestingly, in Thailand there is little distinction between squid and cuttlefish. They share similar habitats and look and taste much the same; the only difference being the inner cuttle ‘bone’ that runs the length of the cuttlefish’s body. The Thai word for both squid and cuttlefish is ‘pla muk’ (literally ‘ink fish’) – as genealogically differentiated with scientific exactitude by the word for octopus which is ‘pla muk yak’, meaning ‘giant ink fish’!

         There are a dozen ways that you can enjoy squid/cuttlefish while you’re here, but one of the less obvious is a real Thai treat and has to be experienced. Look out at food markets, temple fairs and street stalls for the ‘squid roller’. Flat sides of cuttlefish (sometimes squid) are pushed several times through a steel roller, making them thinner as they go. They’re then toasted over charcoal and seasoned with spices, sugar and salt plus any of the other dips available. And they’re so ‘more-ish’ that I reckon they qualify for ‘Catch of the Day’ all by themselves!

         

Rob De Wet


 


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