Calamari is the Italian word for squid and it has become the name applied to all squid dishes. Calamari is common in Mediterranean countries as well as the Far East. The various species of squid have similar body construction and often look and taste the same on the plate. What distinguishes calamari dishes are the parts of the fish that are used, how they are prepared and in what course they are served.
Squids have a main body called a mantle that has larger smooth surfaces and a head that is shaped like a hood. The mantle can be cut into thin slices or pounded into steaks. It can also be cut into large rings or stuffed with other foods. Attached to the body are tentacles and arms. They can be cut into bite-sized pieces or on smaller animals they can be served whole. The arms are hollow and form tubes which can be cut into macaroni-sized pieces or smaller rings.
The meat of the squid has a pleasant, sweet taste but is quite firm. If it is not cooked correctly it is so chewy that it becomes inedible. The secret is to cook it for a minute or two on high heat or simmer it for a long time, up to 20 minutes.
Calamari dishes are common in Asia including Japan, China and Thailand. In Europe they come from the Mediterranean countries of Greece, Italy and Spain. There is even an American adaptation called Cajun calamari. Each country contributes its own unique cooking methods and blend of spices.
Squid can be dried, poached, baked, steamed, grilled, boiled, pickled or peppered. It can be fried, with or without flour or tempura batter, or served raw in sushi. Calamari can be prepared as ceviche, where raw seafood is chemically “cooked” without heat by marinating it in lime juice. Squid can be covered with barbecue sauce or marinara, served Spanish diavola style in a spicy tomato sauce or blended into kung pao, a Chinese dish that relies heavily on hot red peppers.
Calamari is commonly served as an appetizer, often as fried rings or cut tubes and tentacles. The hors d’oeuvre may be accompanied with a dipping sauce. Small pieces can be tossed into a salad. As a side dish it may be served with pasta or rice. Main dishes include large steaks that are formed from smaller pieces of the mantle after substantial tenderizing and then fried or grilled. Sometimes calamari is combined with shrimp or crab or mixed with other fish to form a seafood medley.