Tinned tuna – Chicken of the sea

Tinned tuna – how could we possibly live without the canned fish in the Pacific Islands – especially during a pandemic or recession.

Once touted as “chicken of the sea” by US servicemen, it’s easy to see the appeal of tinned tuna over fresh fish – it’s convenient, less messy than cleaning a whole fish and fast to turn into a meal.

Tinned tuna is a staple food that sits proudly on the shelf of nearly every Fijian kitchen.

It’s metal packaging hermetically seals-in the mineral rich fish, regardless of weather, temperature, location or even time.

Most tinned tuna is said to last many years if properly stored, which is a mute point here as you’re lucky if a tin of tuna lasts more than 24 hours in the kitchen cupboard.

But as humble and cheap as a tin of tuna may be, it can be turned into a fulfilling meal when combined cleverly with more nutritious ingredients.

Cauliflower and tuna salad. Picture: LANCE SEETO

Not all tinned tuna is the same

There are three main types of tuna species used in tinned tuna – skipjack, albacore and yellowfin – and each has its own texture, flavour and use. Darker tuna flakes are generally stronger in flavour and better used in cooked dishes, whilst lighter coloured tuna are preferred preparing cold dishes or when you don’t want that strong fishy smell. Skipjack is generally a darker, more oily flesh so I prefer using this in dishes with strong flavours like a curry, soup or chilli. Albacore is a firmer flesh and is usually lighter in colour and milder in taste, so is perfect in salads, wraps and sandwiches. My favourite is the yellowfin tuna chunks, which is not as firm as albacore but has a pale pink colour and mild flavour, so can be eaten in both raw or cooked recipes. Both yellowfin and albacore are great for cheesy dishes like tuna melts or chilli tuna pasta. Whichever type of tuna you decide upon, you also need to consider whether it is better in vegetable oil, brine (salted water), springwater or olive oil. For the health conscious, I prefer tuna in olive oil or springwater– more natural and less chance the liquid has changed the taste of the tuna. All have their pros and cons so whichever you choose just remember to give the tuna a good strain before use so the liquid doesn’t spoil your recipe.

Tuna, celery, onion and herbs on toasted bread. Picture: LANCE SEETO

Designed to endure

To many people overseas, a tin of flaked tuna looks and smells like cat food, but here in the islands this magic tin of cooked fish is engineered to survive the rugged conditions of natural disasters and the humid climate of the tropics. A tin of tuna can survive cyclones, floods, heat waves and power cuts but they do have a manufacturer’s recommended expiry date, and providing the can has not been punctured, dented and has been stored in a cool area, the tuna will most probably last well beyond the expiry date. However there are a few ways to tell if the tuna has gone bad. For a start, never open a tin of tuna and just the opened tin inside the fridge. Oxidation will cause the tuna to discolour, dry out and eventually smell like cat food. If you do have leftover tuna, it is best to transfer the remainder to a sealable plastic container with the juices or oil it originally came packed in. This may give you an extra day of life but always look to see if the tuna has not turned dark or smells funky.

Tuna and pasta are a match made in heaven. Picture: LANCE SEETO

Transforming a tin of tuna

No matter if you live in the city, rural farm or deserted island, you don’t have to be a gastronomic genius to turn a tin of tuna into something special. Throw them in a bowl of hot noodles, layer them in a long loaf with lashings of butter and lemon, or stuff them in roti with raw onions, chilli and coriander. Some breakup dried noodles or breakfast crackers and shove them straight in the tin of tuna to eat (try this with lemon and black pepper!). My lazy brunch favourite on a dayoff is tuna over hot short-grain rice with avocado, a runny egg, light soy, sesame oil, lots of coriander and a good hot sauce. Since the lockdown, tinned tuna has become the top ingredient to throw into the supermarket trolley, but there are many more ways to enjoy this chicken of the sea. It’s time to get creative.

Mexican tuna cheese quesadillas – wow. Picture: LANCE SEETO