Squid, octopus and cuttlefish belong to a large group of marine invertebrates called cephalopods. The word means foot-headed, and it is an appropriate name for these creatures because their tentacle feet sprout from above their eyes and brain. They are found all over, and sometimes in the stomachs of whales that has just finished lunch.

There are more than 500 varieties of squid and cuttlefish, of which two dozen are commonly eaten around the world. About half the total global squid haul is caught and consumed in Japan. To supplement the native catch an additional 200,000 tons are imported, mostly from Australia and New Zealand, making up one-third of the Japanese market.

The Japanese word ika does not distinguish between squid and cuttlefish. The flesh of the two is similar; the anatomy differing in the shape and composition of the inner shell. In squid, this hard plastic-like shell is called a pen. Cuttlefish have a more substantial inner shell, referred to as a bone. This cuttlebone has several commercial uses, while the squid’s pen is generally thrown out.

Ika is generally written with phonetic kana characters, most likely because of the unusual kanji characters it has been assigned. It is written “thieving crow,” because the bird has been known to swoop down and grab squid as they float lazily on the ocean’s surface or hang on the massive drying racks used to make the jerky-like surume-ika.

The largest cephalopod is the giant squid, which can grow up to 17 meters. One of the smallest (3-5 cm) is the “sparkling enop” squid — called, fittingly, in Japanese hotaru-ika (firefly squid). The phenomenal sight of millions of little hotaru-ika in Toyama Bay occurs just before the cherry blossoms every year. From the deep waters off the coast, they come near the surface to mate and, in the process, they glow, illuminating the sea like a field of lightning bugs. Tourists from all over sign up for evening-boat rides to see the performance, which can only be witnessed along this portion of Japan’s western coast in the spring of each year. Just as the nanohana marks the arrival of spring, the diminutive hotaru-ika signals the changing of the seasons.

Hotaru-ika no karashimiso-ae

Although hotaru-ika are delicious eaten raw as sashimi, they’re only occasionally eaten this way. In the market, you are most likely to find them already blanched and ready to use in hotaru-ika no karashimiso-ae. The only thing that needs to be done to prepare the squid for this dish is to carefully remove the eyes, beak and the pen with a pair of kitchen tweezers.

Karashi is the Japanese version of yellow mustard. It may be bought powdered or already prepared. In Japan, mustard is prepared with water (not with vinegar, as is done in Western cooking). If you want to reconstitute powdered mustard, place half of the desired final amount in a bowl and add an equal amount of water (e.g., if you want 1 tablespoon prepared mustard, use 1/2 tablespoon powder). Mix well and add powder or water until the desired consistency is reached. Mustard may be prepared ahead of time and kept in the fridge almost indefinitely.

For the dressing base, this dish uses the same taki-miso — Saikyo miso cooked with sake and then cooled — as was used in the yamaudo kinome dish we covered several weeks ago. This taki-miso (also called neri-miso, or tama-miso if egg yolks have been added before cooking) is a basic building block and a good item to have on hand. It keeps well in the refrigerator and may be made ahead of time in a large batch.

20 hotaru-ika, cooked and cleaned
100 grams Saikyo miso
180 ml sake
2 tablespoons rice vinegar
1 tablespoon dashi
1 teaspoon sugar
1/2 teaspoon atari goma (sesame paste)
2 teaspoons karashi, prepared
1/2 cup wakame, reconstituted

1) In a saucepan, combine the miso and the sake and cook, stirring continually, for about 30 minutes, or until the volume is reduced by half. Then cool completely. (This step may be done several days in advance.)

2) Place the cooled taki-miso in a suribachi grinding bowl and add the vinegar, dashi, sugar, sesame paste and mustard. Combine well.

3) On individual plates, arrange one-quarter of the wakame and five hotaru-ika. Dress with the karashimiso. Serves four.

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