Champaign-Urbana is home to an amazing variety of restaurants serving an amazing range of international cuisines. If this wasn’t the case, I wouldn’t be living here. Thanks to the University of Illinois, we draw a diverse international population which has seeded our local culinary culture for decades. It feels like we are now reaping the harvest of our good luck, and Champaign-Urbana might be one of the best places to live in Illinois — from a culinary perspective.
In 2015, Thrilist ranked us as number three out of 19 Illinois cities based on our food scene. According to thefoodoasis.com, our little town of 126,000 ranks about the same as Rome in terms of numbers of restaurant per capita. The best part? Our low cost of living which translates to lower prices at restaurants and markets compared to larger cities like Chicago.
Despite all this abundance, we’re still missing out on several important culinary traditions. Champaign-Urbana currently does not have any Ethiopian, Russian, French, or Greek restaurants (sorry, gyros joints don’t count in my opinion). So when we travel, we deliberately seek out what we can’t get at home and end up eating at restaurants that specialize in one of the above cuisines. When cooking at home, I also gravitate to these specific ethnic traditions especially when we haven’t traveled for a while. So the other night, it felt like it was time we did Greek again, especially since I needed to practice a little for an upcoming Greek cooking class.
Grilled octopus is my favorite Greek specialty. At its core, this dish is one of the simplest dishes to make. Basically, just throw the octopus on the grill, douse it in a vinaigrette dressing, then hack it up with a cleaver, and it’s ready to serve. Despite the fact that we’re not anywhere near an ocean, Harvest Market regularly stocks previously-frozen cleaned and tenderized (pounded) octopus at their fish counter. Fresh octopus, like fresh shrimp, is really hard to find in the US — even in major urban areas. The defrosted version that you see at “fresh” fish counters looks really good, but it really is no different than buying the frozen variety and defrosting them at home at your leisure.
Grilling octopus can be a little tricky in the sense that the meat turns rubbery if it’s over-cooked. I’m pretty sure a real Greek restaurant in Santorini wouldn’t do this, but when I make octopus at home, I make do with the frozen variety and boil it first for about 45 minutes before grilling.
If you use an outdoor grill, you can easily char the outside of the octopus in about ten or fifteen minutes. Since the boiled octopus is already tender and juicy, it’s not going to turn rubbery during the fairly short grilling process.
After hacking up the grilled octopus, simply toss the meat in a Greek-style vinaigrette dressing, and it’s ready to eat. Add an extra squeeze of lemon, and you won’t be able to tell that this was not fresh octopus caught this morning right off the shore.
My favorite local go-to grocer for frozen octopi is AM-KO. They have one of the better stocked freezer sections for Asian delicacies in town (especially in the frozen dim sum department). AM-KO also happens to be one of the oldest ethnic grocers in Champaign-Urbana. I remember shopping at their tiny little store on Green Street near the railroad tracks before they upgraded to their current digs at First and Springfield (they still proudly proclaim “since 1978” right on their front door). AM-KO has all the typical Asian products one might expect — bulk rice, noodles, sauces, snacks, sweets, even a little produce section. They even have a reasonably stocked Middle Eastern aisle. Because of its location, AM-KO is still thriving despite the stiff competition among the many Asian specialty grocers that have sprouted all over town.
When I stopped in the other day, I saw a very familiar face I haven’t seen for a while. Mike Pulliam was the cashier that day, but he was also the co-owner of AM-KO from 1982 to 2010 along with his business partner Soon (they sold the store in 2010 but she retained ownership of the building). So what’s a retired former owner doing working part-time for the new owners? “Well, I wasn’t really doing anything anyway,” he replied.
When I asked Mike about what new products they have in stock, he showed me a pair of beautiful pre-cooked octopus legs (12 ounces for about $20). Perfect for sashimi, he suggested, but I had something else in mind for these beauties, so I grabbed a package.
For Greek-style grilled octopus, I like to start with raw octopus and AM-KO carries the Rhee Bros. brand of small octopus at an affordable $10 for a one-pound package. They also stock baby octopus ($7 for a 12-ounce package of six little cuties).
The small and baby octopus were raw, so I gave them the same treatment as the traditional Greek-style grilled octopus described above — boil, grill, dress. I decided to to serve the little “baby” ones on top of a Greek-style village salad and upgraded the presentation.
The octopus legs were already cooked, so it was an easy decision to take it one step further and convert it to an Italian-style octopus carpaccio dish. This is my first time making octopus carpaccio, so it was a little scary. By cheating and using a little gelatin, I was able to recreate something similar to a dish I was once served in a first-class Italian restaurant (in Mexico of all places!).
The pre-cooked octopus legs were a little disappointing and were much more rubbery than the home-boiled version, but the dressing worked.
The next time I make this dish, I might try boiling the legs even more before slicing them up.
Since this is a dinner and a movie column, it’s time to talk about tonight’s film. No, I did not watch My Big Fat Greek Wedding, The Sisterhood of Traveling Pants, or Mamma Mia. Instead I rewatched Alps, one of Yorgos Lanthimos’s more underrated films. Lanthimos is an avant-garde theater director from Athens who is now an international film festival favorite with two Oscar nominations under his belt. He is best known in the US for directing The Favourite (2018) which won the Grand Jury Prize at the Venice Film Festival and was nominated for 10 Academy Awards including Best Picture and Best Director. Lanthimos is the rare auteur who is carrying the torch of the best “new wave” European art film directors in the tradition of Bergman, Fellini, Godard, and Fassbinder. In fact, he has been called the father of the “Greek Weird Wave,” a genre of recent art films which includes his very well-reviewed The Lobster and The Killing of a Sacred Deer.
Lanthimos’s films are not easy to watch. Like Charlie Kaufman and David Lynch, Lanthimos creates Kafkaesque worlds of alternate realities with their own logic and rules. Filmed in a minimalist style, his movies often look cold and sterile. His actors often speak in a very stilted manner with deadpan expressions, except when abusive violence suddenly bursts out of nowhere. I think of his films as very dark comedies filled with absurd situations that are absolutely bonkers. Even the tagline on the Alps movie poster — which reads, “when the end is here, the Alps are near” — makes absolutely no sense until after you see the film.
One of the most poignant scenes in Alps is when a distraught daughter who got locked out of her home breaks into her old bedroom and tries to be the good girl her family expects her to be. Except she is pretending to be a good daughter for her pretend family because her real family has just kicked her out. Sound confusing and multi-layered? Absolutely. Was her distraught emotional state authentic? Very. This situation comedy begs the question: aren’t we all pretending a little just to please those around us? And maybe after a while of acting, you become who you are pretending to be — and morph into what people around you expect you to be. At what point does acting become authentic and real? What is reality? Is the world really just a stage? These existential questions are asked, but they’re not answered. In the tradition of the best artists in the world, Lanthimos is asking the viewer to answer these questions for themselves.
Alps, like all of Lanthimos’s films, was set in stylized worlds that subvert our expectations and present us with uncomfortable insights about the human condition. Fortunately, they are also wickedly funny and entertaining at the same time. His films are an acquired taste, but so are the most exotic flavors of the world’s ethnic food traditions — like octopus.
All of Lanthimos’s “weird” art films (including Alps and also Nimic, his latest 11-minute short starring Matt Dillon) are currently streaming on Kanopy (free for Champaign-Urbana public library card holders and people with access to the Parkland or U of I libraries).
AM-KO Oriental Foods & Gifts
101 E Springfield Ave
M-Sa 10 a.m. to 9 p.m.
Su 10 a.m. 7 p.m.
When he is not watching one film a day, Paul Young likes to travel the world seeking good things to eat. So far, he has eaten his way through 25 countries, and he loves to share his culinary discoveries with cooking classes.