Thanks to a very effective national education programme, I grew up burying away all my ethnic roots, including the ability to speak Khek and Teochew. Even my taste for dishes from my parent’s native districts was abandoned in preference for the new modern. I grew up believing that to speak English and Mandarin is good and that dialects are bad.
But age seem to have this ability to cause me to forget what I just walked into the kitchen to get, and at the same time, arouse the long hidden memories of my childhood days. Having traversed the mid-century mark, I suddenly find myself taking a keen fascination to all things nostalgic, developing a taste for tea, bonsai plants and an unexplainable appreciation of oddly shaped stones. I suddenly derive great pleasure in conversing in Teochew, and have cravings for Sek Her (Kembong fish that’s boiled in brine), Oh Luah (Oyster Omelette), and cold crab… My attention also seem to go off tangent and travel all kinds of great distances too. And then there is the Tiam Hway (sweetened crab) that is made from small black crabs called Bua Kii that was caught from the walls of Clifford Pier and the steps of Boat Quay when I was a boy…
Sotong Season Is Here!
On a recent jigging trip at Desaru on Zam’s boat, we found that squids are in season. These are the long, Red Arrow Squid and not the Bigfin Reef Squid. So the jig to catch these fellas are different from the prawn shaped “egi”. Instead, an “Apollo Rig” of five Candat Mayat are used. These are soft bodied jigs sold in packets of five or six pieces. On this trip, we found the Orange-White colours out fishing the Red-White pattern.
Red Arrow Squid (Nototodarus gouldi)
The squids made up for a disappointing day’s fishing, especially when they are jigged up in their twos and threes. Daniel is all 12” of smiles compared to those behind!
The thought of having super fresh squid sashimi makes Mark very excited, so he tries to help in any way he could.
Sashimi of squid that’s so fresh, it’s still transparent! The deckies had a lot of fun trying wasabi for the first time.
How To Cook Ikameshi
I got four of the remaining squids, and decided to make Ikameshi (烏賊飯) for the post trip reunion lunch. This is the easiest thing to cook other than serving it as sashimi.
Firstly, you need Glutinous Rice. I used Japanese Mochigome (餅米), which is a short grained variety. Thai long grained Glutinous rice will also work for this dish. For four squids, I used only 1 cup of Mochigome. Wash the rice till water is clean (takes 4 rinses for me), then soak in tap water overnight. Meanwhile, remove squids from freezer to thaw. Take a 4” x 4” strip of dried Konbu kelp and soak in 1000ml of distilled water. (You can use tap water, but I prefer distilled water as the minerals in tap water can bind onto the umami of the kelp). If you do not have Konbu, you can skip this step. Konbu contributes a different kind of umami from squid. So using konbu only makes the umami flavour more complex.
Soaked Mochigome, a wide mouthed funnel and a chopstick are what you need to fill the squids.
Defrosted Squids need to be cleaned.
Pull the head away from the mantle, pull away the bone which look like a clear plastic strip. To clean the insides of the mantle, scrape with a long handled spoon.
Slit the eyes and pluck out the eyeballs. Spread the tentacles and pluck out the beak with the ball of muscle. Rinse to ensure no black ink is remaining. Trim away the two long tentacles.
Scrape away the hard teeth from the suckers on the long tentacles, then cut into bite sized lengths. Pluck out the hard beaks from the ball of muscle, and trim away any trailing gut that is left attached. The ball can be eaten and is a delicacy if cooked with Cod Roe.
Cut the tentacles from the head so that the head is convenient to eat with chopsticks. Cut each skirt of tentacles into two bite sized portions too. Even though this is a simple dish, we should take consideration to the person eating, so that each bite can be enjoyed meaningfully to it’s maximum.
Making the Special Sauce
Actually, there’s nothing special about the sauce. But calling it Special makes it sound better. But I digress…
Remember the Konbu we soaked last night?
Measure out 800ml of the yellowish liquid that’s full of umami. Make up for shortfall by adding more distilled water. Keep the Konbu for reuse. This liquid by the way, is called ichiban dashi.
Pour your ichiban dashi into a pot that’s wide enough to fit your squids without having to bend them.
To this liquid, mix in 6 Tbsp of Soyu, 4 Tbsp of Sugar, 4 Tbsp of Mirin, 100ml of Sake and 1tsp of salt (according to taste).
Drain the rice completely, and pour this sauce into the rice and mix.
Filling In The Squids
Stuff the funnel into the mantle and begin to fill with rice. Using the back of the chopstick, poke to push the rice all the way down to the base.
Fill each squid up to ¾ full and secure by stitching a toothpick across the mouth of the mantle. Take care not to overfill as the rice will expand when cooked, and burst the squid if over full. Even if it doesn’t burst, the rice may get packed too hard and is not nice to eat.
Cooking The Ikameshi
Strain away any remnant rice from the special sauce, and put the squids into the pot, making sure that the squids are covered by the sauce. Add distilled water to make up any shortfall. Do not add in the head, arms and mouth ball yet.
Turn the heat up to high and bring the sauce to a boil, regularly turning the squids.
When the sauce is boiling, turn the heat down to a slow simmer, set the timer for 15 minutes and baste the squid regularly with sauce, as you scrape and turn the Ikameshi.
Using your spatula, gently scrape away the skin as they slough off the cooking squid. Skim away any foam, but leave the skin behind as they add to the flavour.
When the timer sounds at 15 minutes, add in the arms, head and mouth balls, then set the timer for a further 15 minutes.
By now, your sauce should have boiled down till it gets tedious to keep basting the Ikameshi. Cut a sheet of tin foil or baking paper to loosely fit the pot so it serves as a wick, as well as to keep the heat in.
Squid have an interesting reaction to cooking. The old adage of short cooking times for tender squid is only half true. Squid gets progressively harder the longer you cook it until the 15minute mark. After that, further cooking will cause them to soften. It is also important to note that I’m talking about a low heat simmer. Furiously boiling the squid for half an hour will render you a piece of chewy rubber tyre.
As the sauce boils down, it becomes troublesome to keep basting the Ikameshi. Cut a piece of baking paper or tin foil to loosely fit the pot, and cover the Ikameshi. This sheet will wick the sauce up, thus saving you effort.
At the second alarm, scoop out the Ikameshi, the head, arms and mouth balls. Set aside for cutting.
Then strain away any leftover skin, and set the heat to high. Boil the sauce while your stir vigorously to prevent scorching, till you have reduced it to about 10 tablespoons worth of a sticky sauce.
At the 30 minute alarm, your Ikameshi is ready to serve.
Cutting The Ikameshi
You need a sharp, wet knife to cut the ikameshi cleanly into bite sized rings. I find that by pressing the knife straight down, it will cut better than by sawing, as sawing tends to pull the fillings apart. Only remove the toothpick after you have finished cutting.
After each ring is cut, move the knife slightly so that you are using the part of the blade that had not been used before. When all parts of the knife is used up, Wash away all sticky residue and wet the knife again before proceeding. This will ensure you have a nice clean cut.
Boy, did this get eaten up fast! I only managed to grab one shot of it (used at the beginning of this story) and after checking that it’s OK, this is the second shot!
Lay the cut pieces in a bowl of contrasting colour. Place the head, arms and mouth in front, then drizzle the sticky special sauce over the bodies of the squid.
A dusting of finely cut spring onions add a touch of green to this otherwise brown dish, increasing its appeal.
Please try this simple dish yourselves. I hope you enjoy it too, and do drop a comment about how yours turned out!
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