When I was growing up, tuna meant an innocuous white fish sold in small round cans. How times have changed!
Fresh tuna has gone from the domain of an elite coterie of sushi aficionados to mainstream American restaurants and supermarkets. Americans are eating this sanguine steak fish with a gusto once reserved for beef.
What accounts for tuna’s extraordinary rise to stardom? California-based cooking authority Janice Wald Henderson cites three factors. The first is the burgeoning health consciousness that has Americans of all stripe eating more seafood. Tuna is rich in Omega-3 fatty acids, the “good” oil found in fatty fish that is believed to help lower cholesterol.
Next is what Henderson calls the crossover factor. “Tuna is the perfect fish for meat eaters.” Its dense, rich, meaty consistency (not to mention its blood-red color) gives it a striking resemblance to beef. Like beef, tuna is delectable served rare or even raw, and there’s something meaty about its flavor, even when cooked. Tuna is the ideal fish for carnivores who swear they can’t abide seafood.
Finally, the growing interest in Asian food (particularly Japanese food) had led us to the realization that tuna doesn’t have to be cooked to a crisp to be good. “Tuna actually tastes best served rare,” explains Henderson. “It tends to dry out when you overcook it, so leave it red or pink in the center.” This assumes you can get what Henderson calls “sushi quality” tuna - that is, fish that’s impeccably fresh.
Tuna figures prominently in Henderson’s latest book, “The New Cuisine of Hawaii” (Villard Books). “Tuna is to Hawaii what hamburger is to the mainland,” says Henderson. “It’s a staple of everyone’s diet, from the Japanese-American to the native Hawaiian.”
The traditional Hawaiian way of eating tuna is a preparation called poke, a ceviche-like dish made with chopped, uncooked tuna and seaweed. Hawaiians of Korean and Japanese descent favor a sweet-salty, teriyaki-style tuna that is quickly grilled over a hibachi. Contemporary Hawaiian chefs like to flash-sear tuna after encrusting it with spices.
When Hawaiians speak of tuna, they mean “ahi,” an island term that refers to two tuna varieties: the yellowfin and bigeye. Both are agile swimmers that can range in size from 30 to 250 pounds. Bigeye is a fattier fish, but both have a rich, meaty flavor.
The largest tuna is the bluefin, a briny behemoth that averages three to six feet long and 400 to 600 pounds. The dark, meaty flesh of the bluefin makes it ideal for grilling and serving sashimi-style. Raw, it resembles beef.
The albacore is the tuna fish we commonly buy canned. It is also delicious fresh, especially when cut into steaks and grilled. The albacore is a relatively small fish, measuring two to three feet in length, weighing 40 to 60 pounds. It lives in the Pacific, where it migrates between North America and Japan.
The bonito is a small tuna with a silvery body, steel-blue back and slanting dark blue stripes. Its dark flesh is rather strong-flavored.
When buying tuna, look for fish with a bright red color. In Hawaii and California, tuna is often sold wrapped in plastic to prevent the flesh from discoloring on contact with the air. Avoid pieces of tuna with tendons or gristle or dark patches. The latter are caused by a blood pigment called myoglobin, which can taste unpalatably bitter when cooked.
As with all seafood, the ultimate test of freshness is aroma. The tuna should smell fresh and briny, not fishy or amoniated. I always ask to smell the fish when I’m buying it from an unfamiliar source.
Below is a recipe from Henderson’s new book.
Hibachi-Style Tuna With Maui Onions And Ponzu Sauce
Roy Yamaguchi is one of Hawaii’s most prolific chefs, having opened restaurants in Oahu, Maui, Tokyo, and even Guam. Here’s how he prepares tuna. You’ll need one offbeat ingredient to make this recipe: mirin (sweet Japanese rice wine). Mirin is widely available at Asian markets, natural foods markets and an increasing number of supermarkets.
1/2 cup soy sauce
1/4 cup sugar
4 green onions, thinly sliced
1 tablespoon peeled, minced fresh ginger
1 1/2 teaspoons minced garlic
4 (5-ounce) sushi-quality tuna steaks, each about 1 inch thick (preferably yellowfin or bigeye tuna)
1 cup mirin
3/4 cup low-sodium soy sauce
3 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
1 teaspoon red pepper flakes
1 small sweet onion, julienned
1 cucumber, peeled, seeded and julienned
1 (2-ounce) package radish sprouts
To prepare Marinade, whisk together soy sauce, sugar, onions, ginger and garlic in shallow glass bowl or baking dish. Add tuna steaks, turning once, and marinate 1 hour, turning steaks several times to ensure even marination.
To prepare Ponzu Sauce, boil mirin in small heavy saucepan until reduced to cup, about 5 minutes. Pour mirin into serving bowl and whisk in soy sauce, lemon juice and red pepper flakes. (Sauce should be served at room temperature.)
Combine onions, cucumber and sprouts in mixing bowl and toss to mix.
Just before serving, preheat grill or hibachi to high. Remove fish from marinade and grill about 1 minute per side. (Fish should remain rare in center.) Arrange vegetable mixture on plates or platter. Place grilled fish on top. Spoon Ponzu Sauce over fish and vegetables and serve at once.
Yield: 4 servings.
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