Lime Coconut Octopus with Star Anise
This dish is my take on the Zanzibari staple Pweza wa nazi, or ‘Octopus in Coconut.’ Given that octopus is something that can be readily fished by hand from the inter-tidal rock pools that fringe the coast at low tide, it is an ingredient that the locals are expert in dealing with. The preferred tenderisation method on Zanzibar’s shores involves beating the fresh octopus with a heavy club, and while this might be maximally effective, clubbing is not an option in a small urban kitchen, so I had to experiment with alternative methodologies. The following multi-stage extravaganza is what I came up with. But don’t be put off, it sounds like more work than it is. Basically, there is an initial boiling, then some grilling, before the octopus is cooked together with the spices and coconut milk. The grilling stage is not so much about texture, but flavour, and a little bit about colour too, as chargrilling does give the octopus an especially appetising look. It’s all worth it though, as in the finished dish the octopus is tender without being over-soft, and not chewy in the slightest.
On Zanzibar, this dish is usually flavoured with just cardamom, but I’ve taken it in a slightly different direction by adding star anise and cinnamon as well. I love the classic combination of fennel and seafood, as usually encountered in European, and particularly French cooking – bouillabaisse for instance, so I was a little intrigued by the idea of amalgamating the cuisines a little. The following is where I ended up…
(Serves 4 as a main)
- 1 medium-sized octopus
- 8 cloves
- 4 cardamom pods
- ½ teaspoon of whole peppercorns
- 1 stick of cinnamon
- 2 star anise
- 1 teaspoon of ground turmeric
- Small amount of canola or sunflower oil
- 1 red onion - evenly chopped
- 3 cloves of garlic - crushed
- 3cm piece of ginger - finely chopped
- 125g cherry tomatoes - cut into quarters
- Salt & pepper
- 200ml coconut milk
- 150ml water
- 2 limes - juiced
- Small handful of fresh coriander leaves to garnish.
Begin by cleaning the octopus. If you have a very wonderful fishmonger, he or she may have done this for you, if not, make a slit at the base of the head using a large knife, and remove the small hard ball of cartilage that you find inside, along with any other head contents.
Bring a large pot of salted water to boil on the stove top. Add the octopus, reduce the heat to a low boil, and cook for half an hour.
Remove the octopus after this time and drain the cooking water. Allow the octopus to cool to a point where you can handle it, and then cut, starting at the tentacle tips, into 4cm pieces. At the top of the tentacle, where it is thicker, shorten the lengths a little so that they stay bite-sized. At this point, you can refrigerate the octopus for a few hours if you would like to continue to prepare the dish later in the day. Even if you want to continue with the preparation straight away, it is a good idea to refrigerate the octopus briefly while you get on with preparing the rest of the ingredients.
To prepare the spices, remove the cardamom seeds from their pods, and place these in a mortar and pestle. Add the cloves to the mortar and pestle, along with the whole peppercorns. Crush to a fine powder, before lightly toasting, together with the turmeric, cinnamon stick, and star anise, in a small dry fry pan over a medium heat for two minutes, or until the spices become fragrant. Then place aside briefly while you prepare the remaining ingredients.
In a deep saucepan heat a couple of tablespoons of oil over medium heat. Add the onions, and cook until translucent before adding the chopped ginger and crushed garlic. Cook together for a further 3 minutes, stirring all the while to ensure that the garlic does not stick. Take the pot off the heat at this point, and swap it for a large griddle pan.
Brush a griddle pan with oil, and heat until very hot. Take the boiled octopus pieces from the fridge, and, using a pair of tongs, chargrill these until the octopus begins to colour golden all sides and is showing some griddle nice marks.
Moving the hot griddle aside, off the heat, swap the pans again. To the pot containing the fried onion, ginger, and garlic, add the toasted spices, and, employing the tongs once again, the chargrilled octopus pieces. Add the quartered cherry tomatoes to the pot, and season with salt and pepper to taste. Stir everything together before adding the coconut milk and water. Bring to the boil then, once boiling, reduce to a simmer.
Cook for 40 minutes, or until the sauce has thickened to a curry consistency. Just prior to serving, stir in the lime juice, and do a quick seasoning test. Add more salt, pepper, or lime juice if you’d like.
To serve, fish out the cinnamon stick and star anise. These look pretty placed on top, and putting them in an obvious place can save someone an unsuspecting mouthful of very spiky wood! Scatter with the fresh coriander leaves, and serve.