Sunday, 2 October 2011

Zanzibar - how I cooked Octopus!

My search for a traditional Zanzibari dish brought up a few options, including the Portuguese Goan dish Sorpotel but, in the end, I couldn't resist the temptation of the Swahili dish Pweza wa nazi or Octopus in a coconut soup

I've seldom eaten Octopus before, never mind cooked it, so it was a real challenge for me.  Whilst it's relatively common in Mediterranean cuisine, I don't know many people in the UK or Ireland who eat octopus on a regular basis.  The islands of Zanzibar have ready access to the fruits of the ocean and octopus is a tasty example of traditional Swahili cooking. 

Where does one buy octopus in London?

Frozen octopus from Moxon's
My first quest was to find somewhere to buy octopus in London.  Most octopus here seems to come from Portugal and is usually frozen, as octopus doesn't travel well over long distances.  I looked at some online options, but with minimum orders of £35 and more, this wasn't really an affordable option for me.  Luckily, a work colleague pointed me in the direction of Moxon's, a posh fishmongers in South Kensington.  I've learned that octopus isn't cheap(!), £12.95 Sterling per kilo (that's 34,121 Tanzanian Shillings).  My next question was . . . how the hell do I cook it?

How does one cook an octopus?

Like a scene from Alien
Octopus bathes in milk
A trawl through the Internet brought up all kinds of options - beat it with a hammer first, smash it against some rocks (like I have rocks lying around in my kitchen!), don't overcook it (then another website said stew it for a very long time), boil it in its own ink and, one of my favourites, chuck it in the bin, who the hell eats octopus anyway? 

I settled for the advice of an Italian website, which has a recipe for Pweza wa nazi (they've incorrectly called it Pwewa, but the Swahili word for octopus should be pweza).  I'm providing a link to the original recipe for those of you who speak Italian.  I must admit that I improvised a lot this time and did things in a different order than the Italian recipe recommended.  I also used coconut milk from a tin. 

The Ingredients

1 octopus (pweza)
4/5 medium sized potatoes (viazi)
1 onion (kitunguu)
1 lime (ndimu)
coconut milk (maji ya dafu)
tomato puree (nyanya)
garam masala
cardamon (iliki)
cinnamon (dalasini)
2 pieces of garlic (saumu)

Preparing the octopus

First I had to defrost the octopus.  The portion I bought was almost two kilos, so I cut it in half and left it to defrost for about four hours, a process resembling a scene from the hit movie Alien.  Another work colleague recommended that I marinate the octopus in milk, which was a really good tip and helped to tenderise it.  The Italian recipe recommended boiling it for 30 minutes only (ie. not overcooking it, which is a mistake lots of people make, apparently).  This seemed to work quite well and when I tasted the octopus after 30 minutes of boiling, it was really succulent. 

At first when I was boiling it, the octopus seemed to swell up mightily, like a true creature of the deep, threatening to escape the pot.  Then it quickly shrank to a shadow of its former self and turned from a murky brownish colour to an exciting purplish red.

Creature of the deep

After 30 minutes of boiling

A succulent piece of octopus

Preparing the Pweza wa nazi

Once you've boiled octopus, you can add it to dishes, either freshly boiled in a salad or, as I did, as part of a curry/soup.  To make the coconut soup I fried the chopped onion and garlic.  Then I added the spices and tomato puree.  Once everything had softened and fried a bit, I added the octopus, which I had sliced up into bite-sized pieces.  I stir-fried the octopus for a bit, before adding the coconut milk.  Once this had come to the boil, I added pieces of potato that I parboiled so they would cook quickly.

Fry the onion, garlic and spices

Add the tomato puree and pieces of octopus

Add the coconut milk

Add the parboiled potato
Pweza wa nazi
I was worried about losing the tenderness of the octopus, so I only simmered the mixture for 30 minutes and this was enough to keep the octopus from getting hard or rubbery.

You can see the end result for yourself - easy pwezy!

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