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Ethical thinking around seared yellow fin tuna

Much of the food in our homes damages the planet enroute to getting there. You can’t stop it, but you can make some choices

One of the many dilemmas around the food we eat is overfishing. (istockphoto)
One of the many dilemmas around the food we eat is overfishing. (istockphoto)

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Rummaging about in my freezer for ingredients and inspiration, I sifted through kielbasa sausage, chicken lollipops, Goa sausages and burger patties—all familiar inhabitants of my fridge’s deep interiors—and chanced upon an unfamiliar package.

Yellowfin tuna, it said, processed at Freshalicious super bazar in a village called Chikkagubbi, somewhere in the eastern part of rural Bengaluru, and delivered home by a company called Fresh to Home. Obviously, this was the wife’s handiwork. She may not eat meat and fish but she is forever experimenting with new foods, food services and food companies that do.

Fish is the staple diet of the Halarnkar family. My dear grandmother—to the perplexment of Kannadigas—always insisted she was a strict vegetarian and ate copious quantities of fish, as all honest Goan vegetarians do. I have eaten fish for more than half a century. It is, to me, comfort food, gourmet food and everything in between. I have cooked all kinds of fish at home, from the tiny mandeli (anchovies in English, I believe) to pink Norwegian salmon, the latter only when I lived in the US, taking care to avoid farmed salmon.

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I wasn’t entirely sure why I looked for labels that said the salmon was caught in the Norwegian Sea. I knew vaguely that salmon farms, like all fish farms, were not very good for the environment—fish waste seeps into the soil, chemicals used by fish farmers pollute the water and soil, and the fish are susceptible to disease.

This is not to say that my conscience is clean when eating fish from the local market. I do know that fish from the Arabian Sea or Bay of Bengal are being overfished and those caught near the coasts have been found with dangerously high levels of mercury, lead and other contaminants. But, as Indians, we grow used to being poisoned by what we eat, whether fish, vegetables, milk or air. It’s just a question of degree and the choices we make to keep ourselves healthy, contribute to planetary health or assuage our guilt.

I certainly felt some consternation about the yellowfin tuna in my freezer. It’s a fish that’s very well known on the other side of the world in Hawaii, where it’s called ahi and isn’t yet overfished. The yellowfin may not be very well known in India, although the fisherfolk of coastal Karnataka are familiar with it as the gedare.

A little research soon led me to the report of the 25th and latest session of the Indian Ocean Tuna Commission (yes, it exists, and India is one of 30 members), released a year ago. The yellowfin is overfished and will continue to be so because European countries with their gigantic ocean trawlers have fished the hell out of it, taking in, as the environmental news website Mongabay reported, a third of the total Indian Ocean catch over four decades. Maldives and other littoral nations whose catches are far more modest have only somewhat succeeded in holding down European quotas.

So, would it be ethical for me to eat the yellowfin? The Europeans will eat it anyway, we Indians consume only modest quantities but, regardless, too much yellowfin is being taken from the waters of our local ocean. There are many ethical dilemmas around the food we eat. I am certainly aware of them, and I admit to being not entirely prepared to deal with them all.

Since I had the yellowfin, I went ahead and seared it, modifying a Jamie Oliver recipe, trying not to cook it through, as we tend to do with all meats and fish. A yellowfin steak must be treated like the Argentinians might treat a beef steak—keep it rare to medium. In the Far East and Europe, yellowfin is either eaten raw, in thin slices, or grilled or seared as thick steaks, cooked outside but left rare inside. My yellowfin came in steaks but was unfortunately chopped into pieces at home, Indian style, before I could intervene. So, while frying it, I had to kindly adjust.

The yellowfin is a nutritional powerhouse, packed with lean protein, low in sodium and rich in vitamins and other good things. Mine had a deep red colour, which probably meant more fat, and so, good for searing or grilling.

With a basic marination, the yellowfin seared beautifully, browning at the edges. Married with a simple tomato salad, it gave me, well, food for thought. I probably won’t buy any more, given its precarious situation. Will that help yellowfin stocks in the Indian Ocean? I don’t know. But it made me think.

Seared yellowfin tuna with salad

Serves 2-3

Seared yellowfin tuna with salad (Photo: Samar Halarnkar)
Seared yellowfin tuna with salad (Photo: Samar Halarnkar)

Ingredients

Half kg yellowfin tuna, steaks of about 2mm

2 tsp coriander seeds

1 tsp fennel seeds

1 tsp black peppercorns

1 tsp light soy

2 tsp olive oil

Salt to taste

For the salad (Serves 2)

2 tomatoes, cut in half and sliced

1 tsp dried oregano

2 tsp white-wine vinegar

1 tbsp basil leaves, torn

A drizzle of balsamic vinegar

Method

Pound the coriander and fennel seeds and peppercorns to a coarse powder in a mortar pestle. Add salt, olive oil and soy and marinate for about an hour.

In a hot pan, sear the steaks for about two minutes each side, so the centre remains rare. If you would like to cook it through, do that, but tuna is best undercooked—in Indian terms—in the middle.

To prepare the salad, toss the tomatoes with oregano, vinegar and balsamic vinegar. Add basil leaves just before serving.

Our Daily Bread is a column on easy, inventive cooking. Samar Halarnkar is the author of The Married Man’s Guide To Creative Cooking—And Other Dubious Adventures. @samar11 on Twitter.

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