I love squid in every form, I like my squid stewed, grilled, served whole, or cut up… heck, I even like it raw on sushi! But not everybody is as enticed by the little tentacles, slightly chewy texture, and oddly shaped heads as I am. For some, the resistance against squid comes from the fact that more often than not squid is badly prepared and terribly overcooked. Who hasn’t come across those suspicious, equally-sized rubber bands covered in so much batter that they could almost pass for little donuts? Not only are these ‘calamari rings’ often made with a lesser quality squid, but the thick batter is often oily and bland to say the least.
Greece is known for their great calamari, so, naturally, I have had many great fried squid over here. I truly enjoy the simple way its served here: crispy, thin batter, often flavoured with lots of salt and a splash of fresh lemon juice in order to highlight the flavour of the fresh squid. Still, at times, I do crave ‘salt and pepper squid’, the fried squid often found at Cantonese restaurants that’s packed with a punch of white pepper, spicy chilies and lots of crispy, caramelized garlic!
For me, salt and pepper squid was one of those rare treats only eaten on those special occasions when my family and I would visit a Cantonese-style restaurant. While I rarely had it as a child, I do have fond memories of my mom and I making small yearly trips to London to go shopping and to venture into Chinatown – usually twice a day, both for lunch and dinner. Alongside the mandatory crispy aromatic duck and pancakes (another favourite!), the salted-fish fried rice (usually ordered from the ‘secret menu’), the ginger and green onion stir-fried crab, and the Kai Lan with oyster sauce, we would always have a big plate of salt and pepper squid. Most off the times we would greedily order too much food which meant the salt and pepper squid had to be put in a little plastic container to be enjoyed as a midnight snack in the hotel room some hours later.
Salt and pepper squid is known to convert even those who claim to be disgusted by squid’s little appendices. Really, I have never met anyone who was able to resist these crunchy, but tender pieces of fried squid covered in pepper, chili and garlic. Sadly, this is why ordering just one plate of these irresistible morsels at a restaurant is often never enough… they disappear so fast! Luckily, I have found an easy way to make it at home!
So, what do you need? It’s best to get a couple of smaller squid around 150 – 200g each, that have a thin, but slightly firm meat. As the squid are only fried shortly at a high temperature, I find the thinner pieces of meat remain the most tender, though they shouldn’t be too thin and soft either, so avoid getting the tiny baby squid. Bigger squid could still be used, but they should be sliced very thinly and usually still retain a tougher texture. Either way, the squid should be scored in a diamond pattern to tenderise the flesh and to allow the meat to curl up nicely, trapping little salty pieces of garlic inside if you’re lucky.
As you probably got from my earlier comment about disappointing ‘squid doughnuts’, I prefer a light, crispy batter. I find that using only well-seasoned corn starch yields a lovely thin coating. Some recipes suggest adding some egg white for that little extra crunch, but I personally find this step unnecessary. As for the seasoning, I keep it extremely simple by only using lots of white pepper and lots of sea salt (of course you can play around with this by adding some vinegar, Sichuan pepper, ginger, or Chinese five-spice). I do try to make up for this simple seasoning by adding loads and loads of almost-caramelized garlic, spicy red chilies and fresh green onion.
The recipe below is for a serving for 4, either as a small appetizer, a snack, or served as a main with some steamed rice and vegetables.
Salt and Pepper Squid
- 500g squid, cleaned
- 70g corn starch
- 8 garlic cloves, finely chopped
- 1 - 2 red chilli pepper, thinly sliced
- 2 green onions, julienned
- 1 teaspoon sea salt, plus more to taste
- 1/2 teaspoon white pepper, plus more to taste
- 200ml sunflower oil for frying, plus 1 tablespoon extra
- Score squid in a diamond pattern (don't cut all the way through!) and cut into rectangle-shaped strips.
- In a bowl, mix the corn starch with the salt and white pepper. Add squid to the bowl and shake and mix well to cover all the pieces of squid. You can also place the dry ingredients in a plastic bag, add the squid and shake well.
- On medium-high heat, heat up the sunflower oil in a frying pan, or wok. When the oil is hot enough, fry the squid in batches until golden and crispy. Place the fried pieces on a paper-towel. Taste a piece of the squid to check if you want to add salt and pepper: if so, sprinkle some on now (I usually do).
- When you are done frying all the pieces. Take the pan off the heat and clean residual oil and crumbs. Since the pan is still hot I usually clean it by grabbing some paper-towels with tongs, or chopsticks and wiping it.
- Place pan back on the heat and add 1 tablespoon of sunflower oil.
- Add the finely chopped garlic and thinly sliced red chilli pepper. Fry until garlic turns brown. Stir and take the garlic a little bit further until it almost turns crispy, but be careful not to totally burn it.
- Quickly add the julienned green onion and the fried pieces of squid to the pan/wok. Toss and stir for about 30 seconds until most of the ingredients are mixed well.
- Plate and serve immediately.