For Canadian food, drink and travel reporter Cinda Chavich, it’s the hellishly huge seafood on British Columbia’s wild west coast that has her attention…
On the topic of outsized edibles, Canadians live in a land of largesse.
Consider those Maritime prize pumpkins, weighing in at more than a metric tonne, the freakishly large cabbages grown under the midnight sun, or our oversized odes to Ukrainian food in small-town Alberta, the world’s largest perogy held aloft on a giant concrete fork and a towering ring of rebar-enforced kielbasa.
On British Columbia’s wild west coast, it’s the hellishly huge seafood that’s caught my attention — 20-pound geoduck clams with gangly siphons as long as your arm; the Giant Pacific Octopus, the biggest cephalopod on earth; and the huge Humboldt Squid, as unlike the ubiquitous baby squid, as King Kong is to Curious George.
I’ve learned to clean and cook the big clams for sweet sashimi, and marveled at the addictive flavour of char-grilled octopus, but it’s the hefty Humboldt squid that’s been on my radar of late.
While most squid is small and easy to simply slice into rings for crispy fried calamari, the Humboldt’s edible tube or mantle can be an inch thick. Fast-growing, quick to reproduce, and caught on a jig (not unsustainably bottom trawled from the ocean floor like most squid) Humboldt squid is a green-light choice according to Canada’s Ocean Wise seafood watch program.
No surprise, then, that it’s turning up on many of the best menus.
You will find Humboldt squid on the plate at Wolf in the Fog in Tofino, charred and sliced like a steak with seaweed salad. You can order it from the Ocean Wise menu at the Oak Bay Marina Restaurant in Victoria, whether it’s the chunky buttermilk-fried calamari or the shawarma-spiced grilled Humboldt squid with kale, crispy Moroccan chickpeas and hummus.
I’ve tasted Humboldt squid at Bishop’s in Vancouver alongside Quadra Island scallops, leek hearts and octopus. At Calgary’s Model Milk, it’s cut into fingers, like chunky pasta, and tossed with oven-roasted tomatoes, electric-green soy beans and guanciale.
I’ve also been hunting this monster of the deep at Victoria’s Fish Hook, where chef Kunal Ghose is so enamoured of this massive mollusk, he’s using it in many creative ways on his menu, from his Humboldt squid pakoras, fried in a crispy chickpea-and-corn flour batter, to the flash roasted Tandoori Humboldt squid, tender ribbons glazed in a spicy sauce. There’s even a squid option when you order his coconut curried seafood biryani.
“Finally, I can serve squid again,”
says Ghose who is committed to serving only Ocean Wise certified seafood. “I haven’t been able to serve regular calamari because it’s not considered sustainable, but Humboldt Squid is fished on the west coast, and there’s no worry about overfishing.”
The Humboldt squid lives along the Pacific’s Humboldt Current, and is a relative newcomer to British Columbia waters, first pushed north from California and points south on warm El Niño currents. Up to 2 metres long and weighing around 50 kg, these jumbo squid (and their rare cousins, the incredible, 13-metre Giant Squid) are creatures of legend and myth.
Whether it’s the sea monsters of old Icelandic sagas or Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick, stories have been told about these giants for centuries. Sailors called the biggest squid “Kraken”, a fearful beast that could sink ships and pull men to the bottom of the sea.
These days, Humboldt squid are again the subject of terrifying tales, featured in television shows and documentaries that describe them as “man-eating” red devils that flash red when hunting in packs or attacking scuba divers and fishermen with long tentacles studded with sharp teeth.
“It’s a case of eat or be eaten,” says Ghose.
Yes, the Humboldt squid is a fabled fish, but one that’s even more enchanting on the plate.
Cinda Chavich is an award-winning journalist, specializing in food, wine and travel writing. Her work has been published in many major newspapers and magazines, from the Globe and Mail, Canadian Living and Maclean’s, to Cooking Light, Relish, Wine Spectator, and Australia’s Get Lost. She is the author of six cookbooks including her latest, The Waste Not, Want Not Cookbook (TouchWood Editions, 2015), which addresses the global issue of food waste and was a finalist for the prestigious International Association of Culinary Professionals award this year. A longtime advocate of sustainable, local cuisine and eco-tourism, Cinda travels the world to uncover new stories. Learn more about Cinda’s latest adventures on her blog, TasteReport.com or on Twitter @TasteReporter.