A food fancier sets out to replicate a maddenly elusive recipe for squid.
IT WAS A PERFECT PIECE OF CALAMARI. Deep-fried to a golden brown, curled
invitingly around bright-yellow lemon wedges, only inches from a colorful
nest of Greek salad topped with black olives. O.K., so it was nestled in an
obnoxious Styrofoam carry-out box. At this point, I didn't care about the
ethics of biodegradability. I was hungry, and this was calamari from my
favorite Greek restaurant. Usually I ate there, but today I had ordered it
And today, as I bit into it, sitting behind the wheel of my rusted-out old
Honda Civic parked facing frozen Lake Calhoun in downtown Minneapolis, I
experienced a revelation. As the squid filled my mouth, everything else
fell away -- the sounds of city traffic behind me, the glare of sun on the
snow-covered lake, the dusty blue of my dashboard. An image of a jar of Jif
was filling my mind. Then something like a striped paper bag at a circus, a
time a similar flavor flooded my senses. "It tastes like ... tastes
like ... PEANUTS!" I fairly shouted to myself. "Peanuts! Peanuts! They must be
cooking it in peanut oil! That's it!! That's the Secret!"
I must explain that I had been tracking this calamari recipe for months.
Food is a joy of my life. While others have different preoccupations -- model
railroaders may agonize that the scale of one of their streetlights is a
little off kilter, and obsessive birders rise before dawn and wait hours in
bushes, hoping to expand their life list of sighted birds -- I go to any
lengths to search out the recipes that blow me away. Since I first sat down
to a plate of deep-fried squid at "It's Greek To Me," at the corner of
Lake Street and Hennepin in uptown Minneapolis, I knew that a quest lay
before me. I have been frying squids since I was fourteen -- you dip their
little tentacles into some kind of batter, pop them in some boiling oil,
and voila! Five minutes later, crispy deep-fried calamari. Easy, and
delicious. I thought I knew everything there was to know about it.
"It's Greek To Me" proved me wrong. Their calamari compared to my best
efforts the way a bottle of Chateau Rothschild compares to a cheap carafe
of Gallo. And the damnable thing was, I couldn't figure out how they were
I had already tried the easy route -- writing to the Minneapolis Star Tribune,
which publishes readers' requests for recipes from local restaurants. I
received a polite letter telling me that they had tried, but unfortunately,
"It's Greek To Me" never shared recipes with the public. Even for fried
Subterfuge was now in order. I visited the restaurant every few weeks,
whenever time and pocketbook would allow. I always ordered calamari.
Fortunately, the place had an open kitchen, almost like a lunch counter. I
could stand and wait for my order and watch the cooks prepare it.
Waitresses gave me sidelong looks as they brushed past me, doubtless
wishing I'd sit on the bench and root through the Twin Cities Reader like a
decent patron, but I didn't let them dissuade me. I was a person with a
I'd watch the cooks remove some raw squid, dripping with a mysterious, thin
liquid, from a bowl in a refrigerator. Casually, they'd swirl it like a
limp rag in a pie plate full of some flour mixture, then plop it into an
enormous shallow frying pan over a medium flame. The head cook, a
round-faced, bearded man, would give it a poke and walk away to his other
orders. He wasn't giving this calamari hawk's-eye attention. He only turned
it once, when the underside was already crispy brown. In ten minutes I'd
have a plate of that inimitable squid, only marginally enlightened as to
how it got that way. I had seen him do it; I went home and did it all like
a confirmant repeating catechism. But grace was not yet fallen upon my
head. The results were my pedestrian usual. No sing, no squid with wings.
Why did it look so simple?
There is a movie called Tampopo, where a woman tries almost every tack in a
truly heroic quest for the best recipes for her noodle shop. One of her
tactics is to play the innocent amateur. Never doubt that movies influence
the young. I put on a bright face one time at "It's Greek to Me,"
innocently asking the cook what kind of flour they used to dredge their
squid. He told me it was just all-purpose flour. "And the oil?" I asked.
"Are you frying it in olive oil?" (This had been one of my suspicions.) He
shook his head emphatically. "Vegetable oil," he said, and walked away. He
had been friendly; I didn't push my luck. So it wasn't olive oil. What
other exotic oil should I expect, in a Greek kitchen? Peanut oil is not
Greek, nor is it a common cooking oil in Minnesota. His comment put me off
the scent. I figured the amazing but subtle difference must be some
combination of Greek spices slipped into the flour mixture. I consigned
myself to examining the batter coating closely, hoping to piece out what
exactly was in there.
Relying on my eyes, I would never have cracked their subtle secret. But my
sense of smell came to my rescue -- one could say my sense of taste, but we
perceive all but the roughest outlines of taste via our noses. It was the
scent of peanuts, rising up among the vapors of squid and crunchy coating,
that tipped me off to where nirvana lay.
It's easy to see that humans are primarily an eye-minded species. Sight is
our most important way of exploring the world. Squid, by the way, are the
same way -- like us, they are sight hunters who can see color. But for many
other creatures, including most of the squid's mollusk kin, sight is a poor
thing at best. Smell and taste, the "chemical senses," are their widest
window on the world. With these faculties, animals read bits of the world
around them -- molecules from whatever's out there, bumping into special
receptors on nose or tongue or antenna, setting off signals that tell the
brain of food or mates or danger. Chemical senses work in complete
darkness, and even for the multitude of species that have no eyes. Only a
sense of touch is found in more lifeforms on our planet.
Smell is an ancient sense; the tissue that makes sense of scents shows up
as well-developed bulbs even in the primitive brains of worms and insects.
Interestingly, it is smell that gave us our ability to reason. As brains
evolved, the smell bulbs swelled into the cerebral cortex, seat of memory
and learning. Some scientists call our convoluted gray matter the "smell
brain" because of this. The tissue that hosts our highest conscious
functions evolved out of a lump of flesh set for interpreting smells.
Perhaps this is the evolutionary reason that smell is the only sense wired
directly into our brains. Information from our eyes, ears, and touch
receptors must jump two nerve junctions before it enters the brain -- one from
the sensory cells to a larger, conducting nerve, and another from that
conducting nerve into the brain. But smell is different. Two tiny sensory
bulbs dangle from the base of our brains into our nasal cavities, separated
from the outside world by only the thinnest of membranes. Smell receptors
on those membranes pass information directly to the brain's olfactory
nerve, without going through a conducting nerve "middleman." And the
olfactory nerve plugs directly into the brain, right next to the limbic
area, the nexus of memory and emotion.
This may be why scents conjure up memories so quickly and vividly. Often, a
scent of something experienced in a far-off time first triggers the
emotions of that time, and then, more gradually, the picture comes through.
"I know I've smelled that somewhere before...sun, green, and feeling
loved... Aunt Edna's lily-of-the valley perfume!! That's how she smelled,
when she hugged me in her garden!"
In my experience, a smell need not be pleasant to trigger a pleasant
memory. I actually like the smell of stale cigarette smoke, because my
grandmother, whose visits I loved as a kid, smoked like a chimney. The only
time our house stank of cigarettes was when she was with us. And would you
say that date-walnut bread has a pleasant smell? I would, too, and as a
small kid it was a favorite food. But now, a whiff makes me lose my
appetite. When I was about four, my mother thought I had drunk some paint
remover. I was grabbed, hosed down, wrapped in a blanket and held down
while she phoned the doctor. I was in the bathroom being forced to throw up
before I was able to make clear I'd only put my hand in the deadly remover.
To apologize, my mother gave me date-walnut bread. I have loathed it ever
since. Probably every human being on the planet could tell a similar tale
of scent and memories.
Memories can carry smell into our consciousness, but we respond to scent on
an unconscious level too. When women live together, their menstrual cycles
often synchronize. Researchers in Canada showed that this is a response to
tiny amounts of hormones secreted in sweat. Women synchronize to another
woman even when they are exposed only to a drop of diluted essence of her
perspiration, dabbed under their noses each day. The test subjects say they
do not consciously "smell anything." But their noses are collecting and
communicating information -- information that the body thinks is important
enough to act on in a complex way. Smells may influence us more than we
But our noses, however much they may enrich our experience of the world,
are still pitifully poor compared to those of most other mammals. Human
noses have neither the range nor the finesse to separate faint and fleeting
smells, especially with a lot of other scent around. A dog, a bear, or even
a cat would probably have been able to find the peanut note in the crunchy
calimari on the first bite -- if any of them cared enough about fried squid to
do so. The secret of the calamari had been, literally, right under my nose
many times, but I didn't get it until I took the dish out of the
restaurant. When I'd eaten it at one of their tables, bathed in the
fragrances of roast lamb, onions, and rosemary, I hadn't been able to
notice it. And it was only after cooking the squid at home, in peanut oil,
that I could taste that something else was still missing, something easier
to sniff out, now I knew the most important part of the secret. Smell is a
subtle thing. A few molecules, rising through the nasal passages, making
contact with the brain -- what a difference they make.
"IT WAS GREEK TO ME" FRIED CALAMARI
1 lb. cleaned squid -- including both tubes and tentacles
1 cup all-purpose wheat flour
Salt and pepper
Juice of 1 lemon
1/2 cup water
1/2 cup peanut oil, preferably of hearty flavor
Mix the flour, salt, and pepper and set the mixture aside. Place the
cleaned squid in a bowl. Mix the water with the lemon juice and pour it
over the squid. Marinate about one hour, in the refrigerator. Lift the
squid pieces one at a time from the marinade and dredge in the flour
mixture, thoroughly coating both sides. Heat the peanut oil in a skillet
over a medium-to-high flame and add the squid. Cook about ten minutes,
until you see a golden crust more than halfway up the sides of the squid.
Turn the squid and fry it until the other side is browned-about three
minutes. Serve with lemon wedges, over hot rice or warm pita bread. Enjoy.