How to Catch and Prepare Octopi: A Presentation on a Traditional Food of Ancient Hawaiians
Common Octopus terms in Hawaii
Most people in modern Hawaii call the octopus by the Japanese name “tako”.
Many locals and fishermen call it “squid” although it is not a squid.
The Hawaiian name is “he`e”.
In Samoan it is “fe`e”.
Items you Will Need in Modern Days:
Three prong spear
Snorkel, diving mask, and fins
Diving gloves to protect your hands from the reef
A floater bag to hold your catch
It helps if you have “the tako eye”
All You Really Need is a Sharp Stick
Ancient Hawaiians would have used humpback or tiger cowry shell lures with large shell or bone hooks on them They would have slowly dragged behind a canoe, a braided line of strong plant cord material (hemp), or tied together cured animal sinew. The trick is to jerk the hook in and bring the lure up very quickly when you feel the weight and hope the he`e stays on.
Another good strategy is to simply walk on the reef. I once caught an octopus that was about two pounds in less than six inches of water on a very low tide. Three times I caught them on outer island trips with only a sharp stick. When I lived in an ocean front house in Hauula I speared both day and night tako from my back porch. The night tako bites and is much smaller, but bites from the day tako are extremely rare.
The term “torching” that is used today refers to a time before Hawaiians had flashlights to prowl the reef at night. The uhu or parrotfish sleeps in a mucous cocoon that glows when light hits it at night, so if I were an ancient Hawaiian with a torch I’d have a good spear. I heard stories from elderly Hawaiians years ago that there was a time when even the ahi was speared from shore.
Time to hit the water!
Find a calm place to enter the water
Rinse your fins and put them on
Prepare your mask so it won’t fog – Rub spit on the inside and rinse it with salt water
As you swim out, look frequently from side to side and in front of you
How to find octopi
Octopi may change shape or color to blend in.
Look only for a general shape.
Don’t rely on color.
Pay attention to movement.
Watch for puffs of sand.
More Tips on Finding Tako
Remember tako can look like many things.
Look for eyes watching you.
What looks like coral is the easiest way to spot the one looking at you in this page’s image.
Once the octopus knows you see it, it will blush a deep brownish red or it may rapidly change it’s color and texture.
If it’s out of its hole it may stand high on its legs, make its head bigger and make it look spiked to look more threatening. It will then shoot clouds of ink as it attempts an escape.
Take the time to poke under ledges or in holes with suspicious shapes, shells, clean sand, piled, white or clean rocks, or seaweed swaying in the current.
What to do when you find it
Don’t expect the tako to come rushing out.
Check the reef at least several feet around the hole for eels that might want to take your catch while you’re wrestling it.
Prod, poke and tickle.
Get ready to move quickly.
Getting the Tako to Leave Home
Irritate the tako till three legs shoot out to grab your spear.
Grab the tako legs and your spear before the fourth leg comes out.
Pull the tako and spear away from the hole.
What to do Since it Found You
Quickly grab the tako around the head below the eyes with your free hand.
It will quickly grab onto your arm with powerful suckers.
Pry the legs off your arm quickly with your free other hand.
Pull the tako’s head away as you pull its legs off your arm.
Let go of the spear or run it through the legs below the head while you pull in your floater bag.
Real big tako I just spear when they come out.
Tricks for Easier Bagging
Shake the tako back and forth in the water until pulling in your bag to confuse it so it doesn’t grab back onto you again
If the tako is too big and strong to handle, put your spear through him where at least two legs come together below the eyes.
Most experienced fishermen prefer to keep the octopus alive as long as possible because the color will continue to change for up to a day, so they aim to capture rather than kill.
If an octopus is killed quickly it turns a dull grayish white and is thought to be less visually appealing to fish as bait. The color changing when it’s touched is also a sign of freshness in the marketplace.
You can also hold it down on the reef with your spear till the floater bag is in your hand.
I’ve caught more than one tako on a single spear when I didn’t have a floater bag.
The Last Resort Bite the tako very hard between the eyes to kill it instantly
Fishing with Tako
Keep it in a cooler but try not to get too much fresh water on it or it turns white.
It can live in a closed container for a day or two but they need aeration in the water. It’s very good at getting out of containers by opening lids or squeezing through a small hole.
Tako is good bait for the large Ulua, also known as Giant Trevally and Papio or Juvenile or Jack Trevally. The O`io or bone fish also loves it. It’s a favorite of eels, but very many other sea creatures including sharks, stingrays and turtles also love to eat tako.
I personally prefer the white eel (Tohei) or moray (Puhi) for Ulua bait because they stay on the hook all night while a tako leg often gets stolen in a few hours. But then O`io goes for tako much better.
Normally the tako is cleaned by cutting toward the top of the head in an opening at the back away from the eyes and ink bag. Some people kill it and turn the head inside out if it’s meant for food. For bait it is better not to kill it quickly.
Several membranes attaching the ink sack and organs can be torn out by hand and the ink bag is cut out as close as possible to the beak or mouth to keep from releasing the ink.
Most people also remove the beak by cutting between the middle two legs in the back, then around the beak.
The eyes are left on when drying.
Hawaiian fishermen dried the ink bag in the sun until it was a thick paste inside and put it on the barbs of fish hooks.
I’d guess they probably would have some use even for the eyes.
The ink was also used as a dye.
Tako is good eaten raw, dried, smoked, boiled, steamed, broiled, grilled, deep fried or slow roasted. It’s even good in spaghetti or on pizza. Cooked Tako with coconut milk and taro leaves (Today called Squid Luau) is I’d guess probably a recipe from ancient Hawaiian times.
Small tako can be cooked by throwing it directly on the grill after cleaning well, but larger tako will be tough using this method.
Tako should be tenderized and the slime taken off by massaging it well in sea salt until the legs curl up tightly. Rinse well with fresh water.
At this point hang it by the head on a line to dry in the sun and wind.
After drying it will last longer because the salt preserves it and it can be eaten raw or as huli huli (turned and turned) on a barbeque.
Ancient Hawaiians probably also seasoned it with things like ground kukui nut, herbs, roots, natural flavor enhancers or tenderizers, or fresh limu.
If boiled the small tip of the leg should be just tender when bitten.
Slice cooked tako thinly at an angle along the leg to further tenderize after cooking.
Freezing also seems to help in tenderizing.
He`e in Ancient Times
During ancient times it is certain to have been dried frequently because drying preserves the meat for long voyages or times of shortage. If done properly it’s also quite tasty and tender.
It’s a valuable source of low fat protein that has great significance to Hawaiians. If the he`e was ``aumakua (a family god) to me in ancient times it would be forbidden for me to eat it. Auwe so sad!
It would also have been a valuable trading commodity when going to the mountains for fruit or other items, or as taxes for royalty, or gifts.
If I were alive then, my favorite recipe would have been to tenderize, season and just sun and wind dry then slowly smoke it in the imu (underground oven).
Ono Tako Poke Recipe
There are many modern variations of tako poke. This one is not a traditional Hawaiian method like drying, but I just experimented while watching modern kupunas cook. it sure tastes good. Barely legal well tenderized tako are best. This recipe is enough for about two or three pounds of small tako before cleaning. Larger tako especially should have their legs separated before boiling to make them more tender.
Prepare the tako by cleaning, and cutting the eyes off just above and below to save the head and legs. Boil until tender (A tablespoon of vinegar or half can of beer in the water helps tenderize). Drain, cool, and slice as outlined on earlier slides. Sprinkle with two to three tablespoons peeled and finely chopped ginger, 2/3 or more cups of chopped green onions, a little chopped yellow onion, dark (stronger tasting) or light sesame oil, a little low sodium Aloha soy sauce, and a few or more cloves of finely chopped garlic, roasted sesame seeds, and optional crushed red pepper. Just put enough of the wet ingredients to coat everything else to taste. Stir well, cover and refrigerate for at least four hours. Dried, sliced, smoked tako can also be used. Add a little more wet ingredient if needed.
Ground kukui nut might be good but be careful to use only a few sprinkles It is a traditional Hawaiian medicine for diarrhea, as well as a food flavoring, so you could be constipated or get a real sore stomach using too much.