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Tuna truths

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A Tunisian fried turnover, or brik, is filled with tuna and onions.

In an age when eating fresh, eating local is so widely preached, it’s difficult to recall that canned goods were a centerpiece staple here just a generation ago.


Canned tuna is usually labeled with some combination of these terms, indicating the type of tuna used and method of processing:
» Solid: Cross-cut fillets
» Chunk: Tuna bits; pressed through a half-inch screen, half remains on top
» Flake: Anything finer-textured than chunk
» White: Usually indicates solid albacore tuna (tombo ahi)
» Light: Any tuna or mix of tunas — big-eye, yellowfin, tongol, skipjack (aku or bonito)
» "Gourmet" or "specialty" tunas: Usually solid yellowfin, caught by hook-and-line methods

To some degree this was an after-effect of World War II when military service took farmers and backyard gardeners away from the soil, and women left the kitchen for war work. But canned foods had already made inroads before the war, especially in rural households without refrigeration.

One product in particular appeared in every cupboard: canned tuna.

Tuna noodle casserole. Tuna melts. Mac salad with tuna. Tuna a la King. Tuna loaf. Tuna dip. Tuna, tuna, tuna.

Most often, that tuna was Coral brand, which at one time was canned right here. (Now owned by Bumble Bee, the tuna comes today from Asian waters.) In the ’50s and ’60s, not a Wednesday went by that newspapers didn’t advertise Coral, and few food sections were without a tuna recipe. Hawaii is still tremendously loyal to Coral, in part because it’s so often on sale.

Coral packed in oil is the tuna of choice in my house. When I stand overwhelmed and confused in front of the supermarket shelves packed with choices, I tend to run home to mama. I know what Coral tuna tastes like; it’s salty-rich flavor and tender texture are the taste of home.

Some years ago, nutritionists began touting the benefits of water-packed tuna, but I — like Julia Child, who was a vociferous foe of the stuff — can’t stand it. I find it thin, tinny-tasting and dry. I’d rather trade calories for flavor and texture.

But a couple of weeks ago, I set out to familiarize myself with the tuna shelf at my local Safeway. And, guess what, I’ll still be buying Coral, though I did like a couple of others.

I set out on the Great Tuna Comparison by opening the nine cans I had brought home. All but one were water-packed; the exception was StarKist tuna fillet in olive oil meant to mimic Italy’s premium canned tuna. (Foodland carries authentic Italian brands, and I prefer them, but StarKist isn’t bad.)

The range of colors and textures was amazing, from cream-colored, striated tuna that looked as though the fish had been cross-cut right from the body to mushy, anonymous bits in shades of pink, yellow and gray.

After each had been photographed, I emptied the cans and weighed the liquid and meat to see how much loss there would be when the tuna was drained. Here, I found greater uniformity: Most cans contained at least 5 ounces of meat, with anywhere from 1 to 2 1/2 ounces of liquid. (All were labeled 6 ounces, but some contained a bit more weight.)

It was in the taste and mouth feel that the brands differed most.

Of the nine, only four passed my taste test. Two (StarKist Chunk White Albacore and Bumble Bee Prime Fillet Solid White Albacore) were so bad — fishy, metallic-tasting, stringy-dry — I couldn’t swallow them.

My favorites: Coral Chunk Light and StarKist Solid Light Tuna Fillet in Olive Oil (both silky and rich), and Chicken of the Sea Solid White Albacore (a very steaky type that I would use for salads, when you want the tuna in pieces, not bits).

Food writer Wanda Adams contributes a monthly feature on island foods and food ways. Learn more about her work at ourislandplate.com.


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