Fresh Tuna Steaks
On the road…again!
Afghanistan to Zambia
Chronicles of a Footloose Forester
By Dick Pellek
Fresh Tuna Steaks
They say that there is nothing quite as tasty as fresh fruits and vegetables. No argument about that. But when it comes to meats and fish, the chemistry involved is more complex and the effects of aging play a role in our taste preferences. Although some people prefer aged meats because of the tenderness resulting from the breakdown of peptides, the aging of fish does not improve its flavor or palatability.
Preparing a fresh fish may or may not deal with objectionable “fishy” smells, but even a slightly old fish soon becomes an objectionable olfactory affront. That may be why in many Asian restaurants, particularly in places like China, Korea, and Hong Kong; discriminating diners might be able to choose the fish that they see swimming in a glass tank; and then have it cooked up minutes later. You can’t get fish fresher than that.
How a fish is prepared also affects the taste. Some people prefer certain kinds of fishes baked; others relish those that are pan-fried to achieve crispiness; still others have a zest for fish that are broiled, braised, deep-fried in oil, or even to be eaten raw. The choice of cooking method has something to do with the size of the fish for some species of fish; but in general, the larger the fish, the more options for their preparation. The tuna species sold in commerce come in various sizes, but most are large enough to consider various ways of preparing them. The Footloose Forester always preferred tuna steaks—fresh tuna steaks.
The best and the freshest tuna steak that the Footloose Forester ever ate was from the yellowfin tuna that he himself caught on a hand-line off the coast of Java. At the time, he remarked to himself that it may have been the sweetest thing he ever put into his mouth. Surely that was because he hadn’t eaten anything at all since a sparse breakfast of two small pancakes and a cup of instant coffee, earlier that day. He does remember being hungry most of the time, and most things taste good when you are hungry. But the freshness of the tuna and the method of the cooking had a lot to do with the sweetness of the flesh and the memory of the event. Give all the credit to Amar, the cook.
A Yellowfin Tuna
Amar was ethnically a Javan; and like most Javans, he had only one name. Most others on our remote island of Pulau Peucang were also Javans, so also were identified by only one name. The Footloose Forester remembers* Djaja, Usup, Pulung, Akmar, and Amar’s wife, Suwardi. Then there was Gatot Djuwandas Saputra, who may have been Javan; nonetheless, was a young man who was proud of his distinctive name. The guys all liked to go fishing and we often went to fish a few hundred yards offshore in the small skiff named Muntjak. Most times Amar stayed in camp to look after Suwardi. They were newlyweds; they were young; and they never complained about being left out of our exciting trips.
Usup, the Chief Guard on our little 1,000-hectare jungle island, had the authority to use the boat and motor to provide fresh fish for the island’s 20 residents (including children), since there were no markets or grocery stores within five hours of travel by boat, or several hours more by foot through the jungle. The few visiting scientists who resided at the research station in Ujung Kulon National Park also had permission to use the boat if we provided a small fee for the cost of gas for the outboard motor. It was a bargain. The Javans fished to survive, we Westerners fished more for the fun of it. When they couldn’t eat fresh fish, they subsisted on dried fish, the excess from previous fishing trips. Yet, when we researchers of means ran short of the foodstuffs we had packed from the mainland, all of us were faced with a diet that consisted mostly of fish. That was OK, when a fresh tuna steak prepared by Amar was going to be on the dinner table.
Pulau Pucang Island, stickpin shows the location of the research station
One early evening before sunset when it wasn’t raining as usual, we ventured into calm waters where the fishing was particularly lively. Everyone on board caught fish with hand-lines trolled from their sides of the boat. Sometimes the fish were small enough to haul in without assistance, and sometimes it was a big tuna or amberjack that required helpers to land them into the boat. Other kinds of fish that we occasionally caught were mackerel, Spanish mackerel, bar-Spanish mackerel, and Yahoo. But on that evening, a proud Footloose Forester managed to hook into a 35-40 pound yellowfin tuna that would become his dinner.
It was a bit after dark when we docked the boat. But Amar knew what he had to do, and soon had a charcoal fire going in the mud hut in the back of the research station. He sliced the outer flanks of the tuna from both sides and cut two long filets which he then skewered onto pointed strips of bamboo. After sticking each sharpened skewer into the bare ground close to the fire, he adjusted the skewers until they were the right distance from the fire to attain that distinctive odor and appearance of charcoal cooking. When one side was properly charcoal-grilled, Amar then turned the skewers around to grill the other side of the filets. Minutes later, a grateful Footloose Forester enjoyed a melt-in-your-mouth tuna steak that he will never, ever forget.
* Spelling changes in the Indonesian language occurred twice since the 1940s.