Visualize the squid. The wrong-side out mollusk with its "plastic" shell inside its tubelike form. You can call it calamari, if that adds any class. Some think it's an ugly creature with "scary" tentacles, big bulging eyes and a mottled gold and purplish brown body. Without even being tasted, the poor little sea creature is condemned as slimy . . . yucky.
And sometimes, even if it has been sampled, the squid still suffers the unjust reputation of being tough and chewy. "Like rubber bands," some people complain.
"People get scared; they think you're trying to give them a plague," said Michael Feig, caterer and herb grower from Tarzana who also is a seafood instructor at Ma Cuisine Cooking School in Newport Beach. "I use more of the fillets because I have a hard time selling them the tubes, and when they see the tentacles . . . they say, 'Oh, no, no, no!' "
So why buy squid? Let's get a differing opinion from the other side of the population, the squid lovers. They'll give you nothing but praises about this inexpensive delicacy, one of the best buys in seafood these days. Avid fans glorify the squid's lovely delicate texture, its nutritious high-protein and low-fat attributes. Its slightly firm and sweetish tasting meat so resembles abalone that often squid is referred to as "poor man's abalone."
"The first time I met the squid was on a cold, moonlight night on the Monterey Bay," writes Isaac Cronin in his book "The International Squid Cookbook" (Aris Books: $5.95). "Our fishing boat, 'The Three Sisters,' caught 20 tons in its nets. I took a few pounds home and made myself a simple saute. To my surprise, the squid were delicious. From that day I became a passionate lover of squid."
A collective sampling of squid advocates can be found in the more than 20,000 people that are expected to attend the Great Monterey Squid Festival on the Monterey peninsula Memorial Day weekend.
"This will be our fourth year," said Bob Massaro, president of Kiwanis Club of Monterey, the group sponsoring the event. "Every year we draw more people. I think it's the fascination with squid. We have about 50 booths that sell squid, from breaded, fried, marinated, flambeed, Chinese-style, Greek-style to squid on pasta, pizza . . . but one of the most popular attractions is the demonstration of how to clean and prepare squid for cooking."
At the Hollywood Diner, there's a big turnover of orders for their addictive French-fried calamari, which is dipped in a flour and beer batter, says executive chef Konstantin Schonbachler.
"Freshness of the calamari is definitely responsible for its good taste," the young Swedish chef said. To keep a tender delicate texture, he said: "The squid should be fried very quickly and the oil should be very hot. The longer you cook it the tougher it gets." The diner serves the seafood in a basket of onion rings and zucchini sticks and pots of a tangy eggplant dip, tartar sauce and an orangy cocktail sauce.
Help for the Industry
The fact that more calamari (whether in the form of steaks or fried rings) are being served in more restaurants and at catered parties has helped the industry tremendously, according to Vince de Corpo, president of International Pacific Seafood, a seafood brokerage in El Monte.
"Squid keeps continuing to increase in volume and popularity; sales have more than doubled in the past year," he said. "Because more people associate squid as ugly, the industry has also leaned toward calling it calamari, the Italian name." Calamari, he said, gives people a picture of ivory white boneless flesh rather than tubes and tentacles.
In Asia, people don't care about its unsightly form, tentacles and all. Some even go for a chewy texture. They leave the outer colored covering on and some of the white "fat" inside, as well as the ink sac that ejects the desired blackness in their stews.
"Eighty percent of our local squid, which is the smaller, more delicate variety, is sold to Japan, and Japanese people love it," Massaro of Monterey said.
On a visit to Tokyo last spring, one of the more common food sights I saw in the streets was the peddling of barbecued squid on skewers. Grilled alongside corn, they were brushed with a sweet teriyaki sauce.
In the Philippines, what might be for a tourist an unpleasant smell wafting in the streets is, to the native, a delicious aroma of dried squid being toasted on the grill. Sampling food along the strip of booths that line the bank of the estero (water channel) in Manila, we found stuffed squid set on a bed of ice, filled with a ground pork, shrimp (or crab) and a pea mixture, ready to be deep-fried for a customer. Because the oil in the huge wok was extremely hot, it took but a few minutes to cook the squid. The taste is still a delicious memory.