What Is Calamari?

What is calamari? You may have heard the name but were never really sure what exactly folks were talking about.

By Rick Gonzales | Updated

what is calamari

For the many of you who have already sampled a plate of it, Calamari is the fancy Italian word for squid. It can be prepared in many different ways, its variations are based on which establishment you frequent and what your exact tastes are when it comes to the fishy food. Many times Calamari is presented as an appetizer, though that doesn’t always need to be the case. So, let’s take a closer look at this “Italian” delicacy, why so many people swim to it when they see it on the menu, and just what is calamari.


What is calamari starts with where it’s from. Believe it or not, calamari is not just an “Italian” or American cuisine. Squid is something that can be caught in the oceans around the world, which means it can also be served around the world as well. But Carmen Gonzalez-Valles, the Sustainable Fisheries Partnership markets engagement director, tells Newsweek, “When we use the name of calamari, we can be mixing different kinds of cephalopods. So sometimes we just have a final product that is done from several cephalopods, which could be octopus, squid, or cuttlefish. And they can call it calamari.” In other words, the “hot dogs” of the sea.

All joking aside, there are over 300 species of squid living in the world’s oceans. Of those 300 or so, fewer than one dozen make up the entirety of the global market for culinary cuisine. American restaurants love the word “Calamari” since it has an upscale ring to it, which means they can charge a little more. In the ocean, a squid can vary in length. You can find some measuring one inch long and you will also find them over 80 feet long. Obviously, those 80-footers won’t be found on menus. Most of the calamari you will find for culinary purposes will measure in at 12 inches or less. That makes a difference when considering what is the size of some calamari.


Now, we can look at this in a couple of different ways. We can talk about what type of place you can purchase the calamari or we can talk about where around the world it is available. Let’s do both.

Here in the United States, calamari is easily found in grocery stores. You can typically find it frozen. You may also find it in various fresh markets across the country as well. It is a common appetizer in restaurants and one that is also very popular. So asking a store clerk what is the calamari option there will typically yield a positive result.

Across the globe, calamari is also popular to either eat alone or added to specific meals. Cooks in Italy and Spain like to add their calamari to risotto, soups, pasta, and paella. If you are traversing through Portugal, you will find lulas, which are grilled kebabs of calamari rings that have bell peppers and onions added to them. If you are in Korea, you will have your squid offered as deep-fried, wrapped in lettuce leaves with mustard or chili sauce.

Calamari is also popular in Asian countries as well. China, Japan, Thailand, and Taiwan especially love their squid grilled whole, where they then sell it at open market food stalls and stands. With Chinese and Southeast Asian foods, you will often find squid heavily spiced in rice, noodles, and stir-fry dishes.


What is calamari if not a specialty item for some? If you want to do it yourself instead of always grabbing the expensive appetizer in a restaurant, you may be surprised at how easy calamari is to prepare. There are a few rules you may want to follow in order to get the most out of it. Calamari has the earned reputation of being rubbery and sometimes tough to chew. And it can be, but that is only when it has been overcooked. But if you are preparing it and wish to keep its soft texture, then follow one of two rules. Cook it quickly over a very high temperature or cook it slowly over a low temperature. These rules apply whether you are roasting, grilling, stir-frying, sauteing, or even deep-frying your squid.

The first thing you want to do while purchasing your calamari is to make sure you understand what is the amount of calamari versus how much you are getting. If you are buying it frozen in the store, beware because once the squid defrosts, it will be much smaller than it first appeared. On top of that, when you cook it, it will also reduce in size.

Once you have your squid defrosted, you will want to tenderize it. Pound it gently a few times using your handy dandy kitchen mallet. Just be careful not to tear the flesh as you Hulk smash. Next, you are going to want to slice the squid. Here is where you decide how you want to present it. You can cut it into rings or strips, you can leave the tentacles on or you can slice them off and cook separately.

You will oftentimes see the tentacles included in your plate of calamari at restaurants, but if they aren’t something you don’t wish to include, the choice is yours. The body of the squid is the main section of meat. Also, if you wish, squid, if purchased fresh, will have its black ink. You can use this salty liquid in pasta and risotto.

From here, you decide what is the best way to serve calamari. You can fry it in battered rings, you can boil it, and you can mix it with different foods. One thing you may want to avoid is eating it raw. As a raw food, calamari is tough and chewy. You won’t even see the raw squid served in Japan where they serve sashimi. They do serve it, but when they do, it is slightly boiled first.

If you want to eat calamari boiled, simply add it to boiling water and let it cook for 30-45 minutes. Check it every 15 minutes until it is fully tender. If you wish to grill your calamari, you will get the best results by boiling it first, then tossing it on a grill on high heat. After 4-5 minutes, it will be ready to munch on. Be sure to turn the calamari one time.

Maybe you want to include it in a soup. You can poach it, including lots of tasty things with it. If you are going this route, you will be letting it simmer from 45 to 90 minutes. You can even sauté your calamari. The best way to go about this is to put your frozen squid in the oven at 350° for around 15 minutes. After that, you can put it in a sauté pan and add whatever ingredients you wish.

For the most part, your calamari appetizer will come to you as fried and breaded rings. But there are many other ways it can be served. One fun recipe is pan-fried calamari with garlic and lemon. Another is a sauteed calamari with extra virgin oil. And, if you are in a rush, here is a quick two-minute spicy calamari.