The best squid (ika) sashimi I ever had was in a Fukuoka restaurant in Kyushu, in southwest Japan. The Japanese flying squid undulated in a large fish tank and it took only minutes for the chef to prepare the sashimi and bring it to the table.
Fresh squid is firm, not rubbery, its translucent glacé surface crisscrossed by tiny, precise cuts made by the chef’s knife. Its clean taste, with the barest hint of the sea, is greatly enhanced by good soy sauce and freshly grated wasabi.
The Japanese have perfected the technique of capturing squid live, and have devoted their energy and expertise to ensuring that the squid remains in excellent condition when it reaches the customer.
Japanese squid is caught individually, not netted en masse. It is never frozen. Fishing boats unspool long lines of bait in metallic purple, turquoise, neon-green, rose-pink colors with special multi-pronged hooks into the water. Each squid is hauled up and thrown into a seawater sluice without being touched by human hands, because human body temperature, it is said, reduces the freshness of the catch. (Distressed squid, like people, turn pale.)
Workers wearing thick rubber gloves pick up the squid in groups of four and lightly ram the squid against their special containers so as to make the squid “close” their ear flaps. The squid are then packed into ice boxes especially designed with holes in the four corners to release melted ice and maintain an even, low temperature.
Barely fourteen hours elapse between the time the squid is caught off the sea and the time it is sold and delivered to the fish dealer. The squid, which rests in fish tanks that are kept at twelve degrees Celsius, is then transported in a special truck that is basically a giant mobile aquarium.
In the packing centers, each squid is gently lifted by hand, its eyes covered so as not to alarm it into releasing ink, and then put into a plastic bag half filled with seawater (plus a cup of alkaloid water to calm the squid). The bag is then inflated with air and sealed. These individual bags of live squid are packed again in boxes, but lined horizontally, perpendicular to the direction in which the truck is moving, to keep the squid from butting their heads against the plastic bag. The boxes are kept cold so that the squid do not consume too much oxygen.
Even processed squid such as hoshi-ika, a good pulutan appetizer served with sake or beer, is made from fresh squid, which is quickly boiled and baked (at exactly 135 degrees in the bottom plate and 125 degrees in the top plate to control the release of vapor) and then dried for three months or more before it is shredded, still warm, so that the squid remains chewy but soft.
There are plenty of other ways to serve squid–grilled and basted with sweet soy sauce, boiled or steamed (often stuffed with rice), and fried calamari-style. Squid kimo (innards and digestive gland) is considered a delicacy by the Japanese: rich and complex in flavor, slightly bitter, it is combined with sake and used as a sauce when squid is stir-fried, for example, with green peppers. The kimo can be fermented with salt and malted rice, seasoned with yuzu lime (and even kimchi), and eaten in small but lusciously pungent amounts as shiokara, preferably with dollops of steamed rice or, better still, mouthfuls of sake. Great pulutan indeed!
Originally posted in Letters to Narcissus.