Monday, August 12, 2013

Why yes, squid CAN be tender and sexy

This dish is simply magical: tender beyond belief with the faint scent of the sea, enormous squid are turned into ethereal feathers here that will defy you to stop eating. 

A specialty of the best seafood stalls in Taiwan when I lived there, this employs an ingenious way to prepare the squid that is nothing more than learning how to slice them correctly and blanch them briefly.

Once you master this technique, the world of “squid blossoms” will open up to you and entice you to turn these divine little squiggles into things like stir-fries, ones with tasty sauces that can bounce against the gentle flavors of the main ingredient without fear of overwhelming the senses. A good choice would be using them instead of poultry in Kong Pao Chicken, but add the raw squid only at the last minute.

Cut tubes in half
Here, though, is a simple take on these wonderful sea creatures, ones that are as yet underappreciated in the West and so extremely cheap. 

You can get the cleaned bodies—called tubes—in the freezer sections of various grocery stores, but especially in Chinese markets. 

Or, you can clean whole squid yourself and use both the tubes and the tentacles here; cut the tentacles off below the eyes, squeeze out the beak, and then cut between the tentacles, slicing them lengthwise in half, if necessary.

The sauce below is merely one suggestion. You can just as easily take any of the chili sauces in the Basic Recipes section as the basis for your own dipping sauce, adding soy sauce, vinegar, sugar, garlic, or whatever you like. Think of this as a basic template.

Blanched squid with garlicky dipping sauce
Tàng yóuyú  燙魷魚
Southern Fujian, Taiwan
Serves 4 to 6
Score the bodies lengthwise
3 tablespoons finely minced fresh ginger
4 cloves garlic, finely minced
2 tablespoons regular soy sauce
6 tablespoons rice wine (mijiu)
2 teaspoons sugar
Lots of freshly ground black pepper

4 large squid tubes (about 6 to 8 inches long), preferably wild-caught, cleaned and skinned
Boiling filtered water

1. First mix the sauce ingredients so that the flavors have time to mingle. This can be done up to a couple of hours ahead of time if you cover and refrigerate the sauce. Don’t make it too far ahead, though, as the garlic can turn overwhelming. Taste and adjust the seasoning, adding chopped chilies or whatever else you like.

2. Defrost the squid tubes, if necessary, and clean them out, removing any bits of skin or membrane on the outside. (Here again is a link to directions on how to clean them.) Drain the tubes and slice them lengthwise in half so that you have 8 triangular pieces. Work on one piece at a time: lay a piece on a cutting board with its interior face-up and the pointed end at 3 o’clock. Use a very thin, sharp knife to make shallow cuts all the way down the length of the inside about ⅛ of an inch or less apart, being careful not to cut all the way through the body.

Cut crosswise at a deep angle
3. Now, turn your knife to a deep diagonal slant (about 30 to 45 degrees) and make shallow cuts across the width of the body, again about ⅛ of an inch or less apart, to create a frilly surface. Note that this is one of the two things that make the squid so tender. What you do next determines whether you will create large rolls for stir-frying or thin frills for blanching. To make larger pieces, simply cut the squid lengthwise into two halves and then crosswise into 1-inch or so strips; these will curl up when they hit a hot wok. If you want to make long strips like in the photo here, make “book” slices by cutting crosswise not too deeply one time and then all the way through the next time so that the piece will open up like—you guessed it—a book. Whatever you decide to do, repeat until all of the squid has been cut up. When you get to the pointy ends at the top, you can cut the triangles off after they have been frilled, as they will mingle in nicely with whatever style you’ve decided on doing.

4. Bring about 4 cups filtered water to a full boil over high heat and have a slotted spoon and a bowl of ice water ready if you plan to serve them later. (If you want to eat these warm, then skip the ice water, have a rimmed plate ready, and serve the squid immediately.)

A "book" cut
5. Drop no more than a handful of the squid into the boiling water and cook them only until they turn opaque, which should take mere seconds; do not under any circumstances overcook them, as this short blanching is the other thing that makes the squid so tender. So, as soon as the squid pieces straighten out and turn from translucent to white, they are done. Fish them out with the slotted spoon without delay and either toss them in the ice water or into the rimmed plate, and bring the water to a boil again before tossing in the next handful. This goes pretty quickly, so if you are planning to eat the squid right away, have everyone get to the table by the time the last handful is thrown in the pot. Drain off the excess water and serve with the dipping sauce. Otherwise, if you chilled the squid, bring a large pot of water to a full boil just before serving, toss in the squid, and after about 3 seconds dump them into a colander placed in the sink; this way they will remain tender.


  1. I don't cook and I therefore have no idea why I am reading your blog. I don't even like squid. But I like your blog anyway. The way you write is very compelling, like I said, I don't even know what I'm doing here, but I'm gonna keep reading more articles. I love to learn about other cultures, but I only found this blog through the words Tianchang Anhui, which is the place a toy was made which I won out of a crane game machine the other day. I'm eating chili dogs today, but maybe someday I will have the guts to book cut me some squids and blossom and blanch that fucker. Well, good luck with your blog! This is a cool resource for people who want to learn about asian cooking. You are very knowledgable!

    1. Why thank you! I appreciate the kind words. They made my day!