Tako Sushi
Octopus

tako sushi

What is Tako タコ 【蛸】?

Tako is the Japanese word for octopus and refers in a broad sense to the family of Octopodidae (madako-ka). In a narrower sense, and most important for this article, the term tako references the common octopus (madako).

Tako as Ingredient for Sushi and Sashimi

In general, tako is rarely eaten raw (nama tako, 生蛸) and is a popular ingredient (yude-dako, ゆでだこ) for sushi and sashimi after cooking. The meat is characterised by a pleasing texture, tenderness and an exquisite taste.

If tako is left to rest for some time after cooking, until it has cooled down to a temperature range between room and body temperature, it is most tasty. Lowering the temperature for cooling or freezing has a negative effect on the flavours and texture. Correctly prepared tako sushi or sashimi is pleasantly fleshy, tender, juicy and the consistency of the slightly crunchy suction cups offers an exciting sensory variety. When preparing nigirzushi, either distinctive or hidden cuts are added to the tako meat, otherwise the firm meat would not adequately follow the shape of the rice (kakushi-bōchō, 隠し包丁). In order to adhere better to the rice, a wave pattern, similar to a washboard, is often added to the piece (neta or tane) when cutting (sazanami-kiri, さざなみ切り).

The preparation of tako is more elaborate but not necessarily more complex compared to many other ingredients for sushi or sashimi. Nevertheless, tako loses a lot of flavour and texture if it is stored too long, cooled too much or prepared without the necessary finesse. The taste of tako is intense but without being obtrusive. It is therefore recommended to avoid seasoning sauce (nitsume), which is unfortunately quite common in simple sushi restaurants.

Best Season

Depending on the region and population of the common octopus (madako) the animals spawn at different times. In addition, it has been observed that some populations spawn twice a year. In general, however, it can be said that the vast majority are most palatable in winter. The tako caught in early summer is also called “straw octopus” (mugiwara-dako, 麦わらダコ), named after the season in which fishermen traditionally wore straw hats when they went fishing.

Tako in Japan

Tako is an essential part of Japanese cuisine and is used in many dishes, for example as a garnish marinated in vinegar (tako no sunomono) or as a filling for deep-fried dough balls (takoyaki). Since Japan's demand for tako cannot be met from domestic waters, related species must be imported, mostly from the Atlantic and North West African continents.

Myth of the poisonous tentacle tips

Tentacles of octopus against black background

There is still a persistent opinion, especially among older Japanese, that poison would accumulate in the tips of the tentacles. This “urban legend” is based neither on facts nor on scientific research. Rather, there is evidence that poisoning has occurred because the tentacle tips can be a potential breeding ground for bacteria. The size and distance of the suckers become smaller the closer they are to the tip of the tentacle. The nature of the tip generally not only makes cleaning more difficult, but also promotes the growth of bacteria if the small suction cups are not cleaned properly. By boiling the tako sufficiently, the danger of a bacterial infection is avoided, but remaining dirt or sand will have a disturbing effect on consumption.

The tips of the male mating tentacles (lat. Hectocotylus) are deliberately removed as they lack the suckers at the tip and are less attractive. The fact that this is used during the reproductive period to transport sperm capsules into the female body also plays a role.

Tako Trivia

After the end of the Second World War, Japan adopted a law restricting the display of sexual acts, in particular the display of genitals. Inspired by the works of the 18th century artist Katsushika Hokusai, octopus tentacles now found their way into the production of contemporary erotica and pornography. After all, Japanese law only prohibited the depiction of human genitalia, not one or more tentacles.

Photographic reproduction of Hokusai's work from “Dream of the Fishing Woman” (蛸と海女).
Tako to Ama, Katsushika Hokusai, 1814 (censored)

Regional Brands (地域ブランド)

Tako is caught all over the coastal waters of Honshu, the biggest catch is landed in Akashi town every year. The fishing grounds are located on the west side of the Akashi Strait and in the eastern bay of Osaka. The octopus from Akashi enjoys an excellent reputation in Japan. This is due to the topography and the tides in the Akashi Strait, where the tide flows back and forth twice a day. The currents can reach high speeds, so the Akashi octopus grows into a muscular animal in the Strait of Akashi while chasing its prey through the fast currents.

Photo showing an octopus from Adashi in a Japanese market. The octopus is cooked and not raw.
Yudako from Akashi (明石産ゆダコ)

The city of Hitachinaka in Ibaraki Prefecture produces the largest quantity of processed tako in Japan. Every year on August 8th, “Octopus Day” (tako no hi) is celebrated there, when the whole city is lined with stalls selling steamed (mushi, 蒸し) or pickled octopus (su-tako, 酢たこ).

A map showing the origin of Japanese regional brands of squid (tako)
Overview of the regions from which the respective regional tako brands originate.
Japanese namePrefectureFishing grounds
Akashidako
明石ダコ
Hyōgo
Akashi Strait
Himakajimadako
日間賀島タコ
Aichi
Mikawa Bay
Izumidako
泉だこ
Osaka
Osaka Bay
Kanmondako
関門たこ
Fukuoka
Kanmon Straits
Miharadako
三原のまだこ
Hiroshima
Geiyo Islands, Setouchi Coast
Sajimadako
佐島タコ
Kanagawa
Miura Peninsula
Shimotsuidako
下津井タコ
Okayama
Bisan Strait (Seto Inland Sea)
Shizugawadako
志津川タコ
Miyagi
Terahama Coast
Suō seto no tako
周防瀬戸のたこ
Yamaguchi
Southeastern part of Yamaguchi Prefecture
Taitō ōhara madako
太東・大原産真ダコ
Chiba
Wakasa Bay

Characteristics & Ecology

Octopus (madako) swimming in aquarium against blue background

The common octopus reaches a total length of up to one meter. Characteristic is its sack-shaped body without shell and supporting skeleton with its eight muscular arms (tentacles) covered with double rows of suckers. The common octopus is found worldwide in the seas of the tropical and temperate zone, its distribution extends to the Pacific Ocean, the Sea of Japan, the Atlantic Ocean, the Mediterranean Sea and the rest of the world. It inhabits rocky reefs and bays facing the open sea. During the day, it hides in rock holes and crevices on the sea floor and is active at night, feeding mainly on crustaceans, bivalves and snails. The usual age is up to two and maximum three years, until they die after spawning and breeding.

Scientists suspect that the worldwide populations of the common octopus could be several independent species, whose differentiation can only be achieved by molecular genetic diagnostics and not by external appearance. Future results may show that the Japanese madako is a separate, albeit closely related species to the native Mediterranean population [Jereb et al., 2014].

Economy

Octopods are considered a high-value species that is actively fished in many regions of the world, especially in Asia and the West Pacific. Only four octopus species names are currently listed in the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nationss (FAO) catch statistics, the rest are classified as unidentified octopus. The common octopus is one of the most valuable octopods and is usually marketed fresh or frozen.

Diagram showing the development of catches of octopus (tako).
The growing catch of octopuses reflects the increasing global demand

Economically most important species

Common nameJapanese name
Common octopus
Octopus vulgaris
Madako
真蛸
Giant Pacific octopus
Eledone moschata
Mizudako
水蛸
Horned octopus
Eledone cirrhosa
Ichiretsudako
イチレツダコ
Mexican four-eyed octopus
Octopus vulgaris
Mekishiko yotsumedako
メキシコ四つ目ダコ
Musky octopus
Enteroctopus dofleini
Jakoudako
ジャコウダコ
Diagram showing the distribution of the catch of octopus (Tako) over the largest fishing nations.
The 10 largest fishing nations according to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) catch statistics

The three largest reported squid producers in Asia were China, Japan and Korea. While the largest fishing nations off the coasts of Africa are Morocco and Mauritania. Spain, Portugal and Italy are among the largest European producers and the most important American fishing nations include Mexico and Brazil.

  1. Alternatively, the section from the tentacle can be fixed with a wrapped strip of dried algae (nori, 海苔).
  2. Hiroshi Hatanaka's investigations revealed that the spawning season on the northwest coast of Africa, based on samples collected from Japanese trawlers, is in spring (May-June) and autumn (September) [Hiroshi, 1978].
  3. Hokusai's most famous works include “The Octopus and the Shell Diver” (tako to ama, 蛸と海女), which shows a young woman during sexual intercourse with two octopods.

Video

© Hiroyuki Terada - Diaries of a Master Sushi Chef. How To Make Tako (Octopus) Nigiri | Basic Recipe. 2019-05-19, youTube.com

Gallery

 

For copyright and author information, see the "Image Credits" section.

References & further reading

  • [Akashi, 2020]: The best Akashi Octopus in Japan (Monoshiri Corner) (日本一の明石ダコ[ものしりコーナー]). Akashi City Policy Bureau Public Relations Section (明石市政策局広報課). Retrieved online on: December 27, 2020: https://www.city.akashi.lg.jp/shise/koho/kids/tako.html
  • [Hatanaka, 1979]: Hiroshi Hatanaka. Appendix 11 Spawning season of common octopus, Octopus vulgaris CUVIER, off the northwestern coast of Africa, Report of the Ad Hoc Working Group on the Assessment of Cephalopod Stocks. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), Rome. 1979. Retrieved online on: December 27, 2020: http://www.fao.org/3/n0278e/n0278e0i.htm
  • [Jereb et al., 2014]: Patrizia Jereb, Clyde F. E. Roper, Mark D. Norman, Julian K. Finn. Cephalopods of the World. An Annotated and Illustrated Catalogue of Cephalopod Species Known to Date, Volume 3. Octopods and Vampire Squids. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), Rome. 2014

Image credits

Information

Illustration

Drawn illustration for  tako

Common names

octopus

Japanese names

  • ishidako (イシダコ)
  • madako (マダコ)
  • tako (タコ)

章魚, 蛸, 鮹, 鱆

Scientific name

Octopus vulgaris

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