What Is Calamari And How Do You Eat It?

As a wildly popular fried appetizer at a multitude of restaurants, calamari is a staple. Some, however, tend to downplay the fact that calamari is not just a crispy fried morsel that is easily shared and fun to eat — it is squid. Some fish-averse people like to conveniently avoid that, but many others find that calamari is absolutely delicious, and it should be celebrated for exactly what it is.

As The Spruce Eats notes, calamari literally means "squid" in Italian. It is commonly served in Spain, China, Portugal, Greece, Taiwan, and many other Asian and Mediterranean countries. A squid is a mollusk, a cephalopod, related to octopus and cuttlefish. Like the octopus, squid have "ink" that they can release when threatened, to cloud the water and enable escape. NPR also notes that Monterey Bay Aquarium states that eating calamari is a "good alternative" seafood choice from a sustainability perspective. Because it is seafood, it boasts some health benefits: protein, zinc, selenium, and vitamin B12. It should be noted, though, that fried calamari is obviously not the healthiest option, but other squid dishes can be great, health-conscious meals.

How is calamari prepared?

While the common use of squid is to create a deep-fried appetizer, sometimes served with marinara sauce, calamari is much more than just an Italian-American starter. While many know only the deep-fried variation, calamari is wonderful no matter how it's cooked — and it can even be enjoyed raw. The flesh is white, mild, and firm. Calamari is sold in regular supermarkets, or you can purchase from a specialty fishmonger. It also freezes well. According to George Mahe, writing in St. Louis Magazine, the body of the squid is called the mantle. The common preparation is thinly sliced pieces of the mantle, and sometimes they also include the fried tentacle. This fried method is technically called "calamari fritto." 

If you're making calamari at home, be mindful of properly cleaning and preparing it. The cleaning process involves removing the sac and innards, squeezing off the bony "beak," removing the head, washing well, peeling extra skin, and removing thin bones. It can certainly be a bit of a challenge, but you can always ask your fishmonger to handle it for you. Be careful not to overcook. Calamari cooks very quickly; if you overcook, it can become rubbery. NPR notes that in Italy, baby calamari is often served, and some calamari-laden pasta dishes are also infused with the ink of the squid. Stuffed and braised calamari is amazing, squid-forward soups and stews are popular in multiple cultures, and many enjoy calamari as a starring member of seafood salads. Calamari is also often included in the traditional Italian Christmas Eve "seven fish" dinner.

What is the Fried Calamari Index?

According to The New York Times, their first print mention of fried calamari was in the mid-1970s. The Town Dock notes that after this mention, calamari began to spread — first throughout fine dining restaurants in the '80s, and then in more casual establishments. (That site also tells us that in 2014, calamari became Rhode Island's Official State Appetizer.) By the mid-'90s, calamari was almost being enjoyed at a majority of restaurants. In 2014, The New York Times began to trace food mentions in their articles, which helped to give a clear indication of the food's prominence during a certain era — the ebbs and flows of its popularity. This particular trend was called the "Fried Calamari Index," noting how it wasn't mentioned whatsoever prior to 1975 and then boomed in popularity ever since, according to First We Feast. This has become a tangible and quantifiable means of tracking and tracing food trends over time. The index even used SCUs, or standard calamari units, to measure the popularity of various ingredients, dishes, and recipes.

Of course, this index isn't foolproof. Calamari mentions may have decreased since 1996, but that doesn't mean it's any less popular or being served less in restaurants; it's just being discussed in print (or online) less than it was back when it was a novel dish that got people talking.