Cuttlefish "Ambot Tik"
Updated: Oct 30, 2021
"There is the life of the plankton in almost endless variety; there are the many kinds of fish, both surface and bottom living; there are the hosts of different invertebrate creatures on the sea-floor; and there are those almost grotesque forms of pelagic life in the oceans depths. Then there are the squids and cuttlefish, and the porpoises, dolphins and great whales."
Alister Hardy (1896-1985), Marine Biologist
I love slow-cooked cuttlefish, at least as much as I like fast-fried cuttlefish. I am also a bit partial to vinegar and I know a number of people similarly-minded. So when I found a recipe of squid cooked in a vinegary curry sauce in Madhur Jaffrey's book "Flavours of India", things came together, and I have been making this dish for as long as I have been buying cuttlefish from the market stall. And indeed the cuttlefish are back and I am buying them from the market stall - they are only around for a couple of months.
However, the article linked below paints the rather worrying picture that an absence of catch control over the fishing of cuttlefish has led to a surge in capture of pre-reproduction specimens, thereby threatening the survival of the species. The Marine Conservation Society have put the cuttlefish on their 'Fish to avoid' list. But, it is worth making the point that, reading a little deeper into the article, it is the specimens a distance offshore that are at the centre of the threat as cuttlefish move inshore to lay their eggs. This draws attention to the fact that it is not the small-scale inshore day-boat fishermen that are causing harm - the damage is being done by large-scale operations way out at sea. Situations like this, I feel, put the conscientious sustainability-minded Seafoodie, as well as the responsible fisherman, in a bit of a tricky position. Does it fall upon us as the former to stop buying cuttlefish from they as the latter to stem the tide of this demise? Or could the solution be that they stop fishing for cuttlefish? Or are either of these angles of attack mere insignificant drops in the ocean of a problem requiring more authoritative attention?
For the time being, it is pleasing to note, from the Marine Conservation Society page, "If choosing cuttlefish caught using traps buy it from areas where cuttlefish fisheries protect cuttlefish eggs, e.g. Dorset (Poole, Christchurch) and Brittany." Exactly where the cuttlefish on our market stall are sourced! But this looks like another one to keep an eye on.
Madhur Jaffrey's recipe is quite a rapid affair using squid which, although I've never actually tried, I would have all enthusiasm to do so. I have taken the spirit of her recipe to create a slow-cooked cuttlefish dish that is meltingly tender and oozes of the flavours of Goa. I don't think I am doing any disservice to heritage by taking this route because it is my understanding (see "Essential Goa Cookbook") that "fish, foul and flesh" are ready subjects to treatment of this kind.
Cuttlefish "Ambot Tik"
Ingredients (serves 2)
350-400g cuttlefish, cleaned and cut into 1/2" wide strips
3 tbsp Rechad Spice Paste
Turmeric, a pinch
1-2 tbsp sunflower or vegetable oil
1 onion, sliced into thin half-rings
2 garlic cloves, finely chopped
1 tomato (ideally skinned), finely chopped
4 green chillies (or to taste) slit lengthways
Red wine or cider vinegar, approx 2 tbsp in total
Kokum, 6 pieces, or alternative (see Note)
Marinate the cuttlefish pieces in 1 tbsp of the Rechad Spice Paste, 1 tsp vinegar, a sprinkling of salt and a pinch of turmeric. Leave, covered, in the fridge for a few hours or overnight.
Preheat the oven to 160°C.
In a flameproof casserole, fry the onion in the oil over a medium flame until golden but not yet caramelised. Then add the garlic and fry for a couple of minutes.
Put the cuttlefish pieces and their marinade in the casserole and fry for a few minutes until the spice paste has started to cook. Then add the remaining 2 tbsp of spice paste, cook for a minute, stirring continuously, then add the tomato and continue cooking until the tomatoes have broken down. Add the green chillies, water and 1 tbsp vinegar, bring to a boil, then cover and place in the oven for about 1 hour or until the cuttlefish can be cut with a spoon.
Taste for salt and vinegar and adjust according to preference. Add the kokum pieces (or alternative) and return to the oven for 10 minutes.
Kokum: Dried mangosteen that it is used in south Indian (usually fish) dishes to impart a sour flavour. It can be found in the UK in Asian grocers but is also available online, for example, from Spices of India. An alternative is to use a couple of teaspoons of tamarind puree or failing that a squeeze or two of lemon or lime juice.
"The Essential Goa Cookbook", Maria Teresa Menezes (200), pp. 95: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Essential-Cookbook-Maria-Teresa-Menezes/dp/0141000872
"'Black gold' cuttlefish caught in the UK and popular in Spain facing extinction due to over-fishing", The Olive Press, accessed 5 April 2020: https://www.theolivepress.es/spain-news/2020/03/12/black-gold-cuttlefish-caught-in-the-uk-and-popular-in-spain-facing-extinction-due-to-over-fishing/
"Good Fish Guide: Cuttlefish", Marine Conservation Society, accessed 5 April 2020: https://www.mcsuk.org/goodfishguide/search?name=cuttlefish
Rechad spice paste: https://www.butestseafoodie.com/post/rechad-spice-paste
Kokum, Spices of India, accessed 30 January 2020: https://www.spicesofindia.co.uk/acatalog/Indian-Food-Top-Op-Kokum-Phool.html