In literature, the octopus is an intriguing, odd, disturbing animal, in cartoons it’s comical, and in science fiction stories and novels it’s terrifying. On fishmongers’ stands, though, where it becomes an inert, slithery mass, I feel almost sorry for it. On the beaches of Biserta, at the start of the summer, we used to catch small octopuses among the rocks. We kept them prisoner just long enough to torture them a bit, and then we’d let them go again. It’s such a funny sight, the octopus, when it slides backwards using its eight tentacles lined with suckers, actually lethal weapons. When it captures a prey, it immobilizes it with its suckers and then tears it to shreds with its beak. If it feels threatened, it squirts its predator with a black ink, veiling the intruder in a dark, blinding cloud.
In the twentieth century, the octopus became a cruel, ruthless, evil giant squid. It came to stand for the power of the media (Vivendi, “La piovra pubblicitaria”), the Mafia (the Italian Christian Democrat politician Giulio Andreotti was accused of having a ‘patto con la piovra’, a pact with the octopus), and crime in general (Octopus was the title of a successful Italian TV series, while ‘Le Poulpe’ is a series of thrillers published by Éditions Baleine in France).
For Tunisians, the octopus has always been a symbol of avarice, but since trade relations have been established with Japan (the world’s largest consumer of octopus), the animal has also become a symbol of rarity and expensiveness. At the Central Market in Tunis, dried octopus fetches 35 dinars a kilo (about 28 euros!). But never mind about avarice, you only live once, and it’s a well known fact that Tunisians would willingly sell their souls to satisfy their gastronomic cravings.
The most widespread species in the Mediterranean is the Common Octopus (Octopus vulgaris), which can reach a length of three meters. Then come the White-spotted Octopus (Octopus macropus), which is smaller with thinner tentacles, and the Curled Octopus (Eledone cirrosa) known in Tunisia as qarnit audun. Last but not least, the Musk Octopus (Eledone moschata) is a smaller octopus with a single row of suckers on its tentacles (the others have two) and issues forth a strong odor of musk. Tunisians capture it by hand under stones and among seaweed; they call it meska and regard it as the tastiest member of the octopus family.
The octopus loves the dark and it’s by night that it swims into the deep to hunt. By day it hides in caves among the rocks to snooze and enjoy a bit of peace away from the light. But fishermen are only too familiar with its habits and know how to capitalize on them. In Tunisia, the largest-scale octopus fishing goes on along the eastern coast, mainly round the Kerkena Islands off Safax and Zarziz in the deep south. The cephalopods move in shoals and never stop in the same place for any length of time. They thus have to be caught during their passage.
At one time, the fishing continued for the duration of their stopovers, but some years ago the Tunisian authorities imposed a strict calendar, region by region, to establish the opening and closing dates of the octopus fishing season, which goes from around the middle of October to the middle of the following May. The aim of these measures is to protect the species during the reproduction period, but they are disastrous for the small-scale fishermen who used to live off the catch. For the Kerkena islanders, for example, the octopus is a staple: it’s a veritable ‘red gold’ for these poor islands, so important that the locals even dedicate a festival to it in March.
In these parts, they still fish for octopus using the artisan method whereby a string of pots cum traps is set along the shore at low tide or out at sea from boats. The pots are small and made of thick terracotta; they have a widish mouth and a pointed bottom with a tiny hole at the center. The pots are joined together by a rope tied round the mouth of each and are set about a meter one from another.
Taking due precautions, the fishermen load the long string of pots onto their boats and set out to sea, where they let it slide to the bottom and mark its presence with a series of buoys. When they pull up the rope the day after, the pots are full of octopuses.
In the areas where this technique is still used, in the harbors you can see mountains of pots piled up on the piers. And near the harbors you can see hundreds of meters of nets lying out in the sun with the octopuses left on top to dry. The octopuses are dried in the sun after being well beaten and worked with the hands.
The inhabitants of the eastern and southern coast of Tunisia are, like the Greeks and the Japanese, great consumers of octopus which they eat fresh during the fishing season and dried the rest of the year. Fresh octopus is cooked for cuscus and in sauces to dress pasta, stewed with rice, tomato, and cumin, and also in salads. Dried, it’s served in sweet and sour sauce, in barley soup, steamed with cuscus or with pasta, grilled and so on.
Lilia Zaouali is a lecturer in ‘Anthropology of the Islamic World’ at the University of Jussieu, Paris.
Adapted by John Irving