For most of Australia’s colonial history, squid (aka calamari) was thought of as fisherman’s bait. Only after World War II, with the arrival of migrants from Europe, did the now-familiar dish begin to sneak onto our menus. In 1950, The Age quoted an English travel writer’s advice when touring Italy:
Here is the place for a morning visit, here you may see a fresco, a pageant, a horse race, and never, he adds darkly, order calamari. It looks so pretty on the menu; it means octopus.
Wrong on every count.
When the Australian Women’s Weekly daringly published a recipe for “Stuffed Calamary (squid)” in March 1962, it was included in a feature titled “From a famous cookbook”. The introduction read:
Our Cookery Expert, Leila C. Howard, chose these unusual recipes from “Larousse Gastronomique,” the famous French encyclopedia of cooking.
It wasn’t calamari’s first appearance in culinary circles. By 1959, John Shaw wrote in the Sydney Morning Herald, it was possible to find good calamari in Sydney. Evidently, it had been served as early as 1941 at a dinner to welcome the first Brazilian consul to Australia. In 1967, wine merchant and restaurateur Johnnie Walker described an event he dubbed The Great Calamari Tragedy.
One night in 1941 the society arranged a dinner to welcome to Sydney Dr Mario Santos, the first Brazilian Consul in Australia. Carlos Zaiapa devised the menu and cooked the meal – a superb affair in which calamari stands out vividly in my memory for more reasons than one.
In those days – heaven help my friends – I was a rabid projectionist of my own amateur movies. So while Carlos was busying himself in the kitchen I set up my machine on the white-clothed trestle table and proceeded to show a fishing excursion on the Hawkesbury.
At the finish Carlos brought in the steaming bowl of calamari (his specialty in those days), goblets and wine.As he placed them on the table everything went wrong. Someone bent down to pick up the mountain of film on the floor, someone else moved a trestle to help him, and down crashed the table – calamari, wine, glasses and all.
The article went on to give a recipe which, while much simpler than the one in the Weekly, also involved stewing the squid gently in a wine sauce.
The fried calamari that has become a standard on pub menus arrived in the late 1960s, perhaps making its debut in Italian restaurants as part of a Fritto Misto di Mare. By 1972 it had made the transition to mainstream, with Fried Calamari on offer at the Captain Cook floating restaurant at Rose Bay, Sydney.
While our love of calamari owes much to the Italians, the other ubiquitous dish featuring this succulent cephalopod, Salt and Pepper Squid, came to us by way of Chinese restaurants. The earliest reference I can find is in 1991, at The Golden Century in Sydney. In 1994, Terry Durack described it as the house specialty at the Empress of China in Melbourne.
Today, crumbed calamari rings and a salt and pepper version are available from the supermarket freezer. Sadly, they’re more crumb than seafood. And it’s always a bit of a lottery when you order the dish in a restaurant or pub. Will those little rings be meltingly tender or have the rubbery texture Leo Schofield once described as “bits of bathing cap”?
For better or worse, it seems we’ve embraced calamari as a classic alongside the chicken parma. Bait no longer, it’s here to stay.