Tin that tune, babe

a big tuna on display

Tin that Tuna, babe

processed tuna fish we all know so wellA pantry without a tin of tuna is a sign of despair. It’s the blocked emergency exit, the missing spare parachute. It is an alarm announcing time to go grocery shopping or straighten out your life. Tinned tuna is so recognizable you can smell and almost savour it before lifting the pull ring. Everybody has a proper way of draining the extra liquid and waste as little as possible of the fish without cutting your fingers on the nasty edges. The ubiquity of the round tins and the familiar taste and texture of them made the image of the fierce fish vanish. Somewhere a detachment took place, making it sociably acceptable, easy and ready to use. 

Fresh tuna

Fresh tuna instead is pretty rare to see at your local fishmonger. It is a huge animal that, on display in a shop, would make all other fish look like tuna-bait. Sicily has a long tradition in hunting and manufacturing them: during ‘mattanza’ a passing troup of tuna was diverted in nets and besieged by fisherboats. The blood gushing out the wounds caused by the harpoons coloured the water red, an image rarely found on tins. The tuna was then dragged to the ‘tonnara’, where chunks were either salted or boiled in plenty of salt water and conserved in oil.

Sampolo 246 - Cultori del Gusto


Tuna is often referred to as the pig of the sea, because nothing goes lost. The belly meat is fat and excellent to roast on charcoal, the flesh is firm and used for tinning and cooking, the guts (gonads in particular) are often fried while the eggs have a league of their own: the delicious bottarga. The bones are used to make gelatine.

bottarga, dried tuna eggs, an absolute delicacy

Easy and tasty

Fresh tuna is an interesting product. Just as swordfish it doesn’t have any of them small bones that put many people off. It can be cut in many ways, offering the cook various possibilities of preparing. There are though far less traditional preparations for tuna than one would expect.  

Filled tuna

tonno ammuttunato alla siciliana

800 grams of fresh tuna in one chunk

5 cloves of garlic, remove the green sprout and cut in four

1 bunch of fresh mint

100 gram of cheese, finely diced; pecorino preferably

1 litre of tomato sauce

salt, oil and chili pepper

Use a sharp knife to make small incisions all around the chunk of tuna and fill them with garlic, cheese and mint. Do it gently, as if wanting the hide a treasure. Fry the fish on all sides and let it cook in the tomato sauce for at least 40 minutes on a very slow fire. Best to keep a lid on and stir now and then. Add the chilli pepper at the end. Better would be preparing the day before serving and let the tuna interact with the sauce. 

The sauce can be used to dress the pasta – any type will do – while the fish is cut by the host and served as main course. If you have your tough Hemingway-like adventurous friends over, then this the recipe for you. Let them vent how they almost got lost in the Cambodian jungle, missed a plane in Essaouira, nearly stepped on a snake in Guatemala, were at the point of swimming with whales in Mozambique, had sweet mint tea in Tanger and fried grasshoppers in Oaxaca. Remember that alcohol fuels the imagination and erases limits, so serve the tuna in time. Tell your guests about the mattanza, and that the incisions in the fish you are serving recall the holes caused by the harpoons. If you like eating and savouring in silence, that is a great idea. 

Sweet sour tuna

800 grams of fresh tuna, sliced (four slices, four people)

5 onions

1 glass of white wine

white flour

1 spoon of sugar

minced mint, preferably fresh

oil and salt

Pass the fish in flour and sear both side in a hot pan with oil. Put aside.Slice the onions finely and fry in the same pan. Add a sip of cold wine. When soft add the wine and sugar; let it evaporate before adding the fish. Serve the tuna covered with the onion and top it off with minced mint. No need to serve it hot. Variations are substituting the wine with vinegar and adding the Sicilian signature (pine nuts and raisins). Instead of using sugar and wine/vinegar, you could use a sweet wine as Zibibbo (just the name…) or Marsala. Port or Sherry? Try it and let me know. The sushi/sashimi wave has lowered the inhibition of eating raw fish and opened new opportunities and introduced the deep freezing technique that makes it safe to eat the fish uncooked. Tuna-steaks are often served rare since cooking them through does tend to be dry and stringy.

Seared tuna steak with sesame

seared tuna with sesame seedsPress a chunk lightly oiled steaks in sesame – one could alter black and with seeds – and sear in a piping hot pan. Cut in slices before serving. I would advice against marinating the fish, especially when using lemon. It tends to make the fish go stringy and doesn’t actually add any significant flavor. You might leave the chunk in salted water for about an hour and half, adding no more salt when cooked. Sliced tuna is not adept for this preparation, so ask your fishmonger for chunks of about 15cm by 3 by 3. An interesting way of preparing tuna today is as tartar. Dice the fish, season with olive oil and salt. 

Tuna Tartar

200 grams of tuna (freeze for three days)

olive oil and salt

Orange mayonnaise (where orange juice takes the place of lemon)

Cut the tuna fine, don’t use a grinder; 0.25/0.30 cm. Season with oil and salt. Serving the tartar on warm toasted bread and topped off with mayonnaise is worth trying: the crispiness of the bread, the soft tuna flesh and the smoothness of the mayonnaise create an interesting sequence, while biting through warm bread, room temperature tuna a cold mayonnaise prompts a surprising sensation. 

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