Tinned tuna – Chicken of the sea

Avocado tuna melts are very moorish with melting cheese. Picture: LANCE SEETO

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.

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 favorite 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.

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.

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 favorite on a day-off 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.

Tuna recipes

Lemon tuna pasta

2 tablespoons olive oil

2 large cloves garlic minced

1 (5 ounce) can tuna, drained I prefer tuna packed in oil

1 teaspoon lemon juice

1 tablespoon fresh parsley chopped

Salt & pepper to taste

4 ounces uncooked pasta (I used spaghetti)

  1.      Boil a salted pot of water for your pasta and cook it al dente according to package directions. Prep your other ingredients while it cooks.
  2.      When the pasta is close to being ready, add the oil to a small pan over medium heat. Once the oil is hot, add the garlic and cook it for 30 seconds.
  3.      Stir in the tuna, lemon juice, and parsley. Let it heat through.
  4.      Once the pasta is done, add some of the pasta water (a couple tablespoons) to the sauce and then drain the pasta and toss with the sauce.
  5.      Season with salt & pepper as needed, or try adding grated cheese and lemon zest.

Tuna, bean & cabbage soup

1 tablespoon oil

1 onion, diced

3 cloves garlic, chopped

1 pinch red pepper flakes (optional)

4 cups low sodium chicken broth

1 (15 ounce) cans cannellini beans, drained and rinsed (or 1 1/2 cups cooked beans, from 1/2 cup dry)

2 (6 ounce) cans Clover Leaf solid white tuna, drained and broken into bite sized chunks

1 teaspoon italian seasoning

1/2 teaspoon ground fennel seeds

1/2 teaspoon paprika

1 bunch kale, coarsely chopped

1/4 cup parmigiano reggiano (parmesan), grated

salt and pepper to taste

  1.      Heat the oil in a large sauce pan over medium heat, add the onion and cook until tender, about 5-7 minutes.
  2.      Add the garlic and red pepper flakes and cook until fragrant, about a minute.
  3.      Add the broth, beans, tuna, italian seasoning, fennel and paprika, bring to a boil, reduce the heat and simmer for 10 minutes.
  4.      Add the kale and simmer until it wilts, about 2-3 minutes.
  5.      Add the parmesan, let it melt and season with salt and pepper to taste before removing from heat.

Avocado tuna melts

4-6 pieces of bread (wholemeal or dark flour preferred)

1 tablespoon Rewa butter

2 (6 oz) cans of light tuna, drained (I use wild planet tuna)

1/2 c. Mayonnaise

1 Stalk celery, cleaned and finely chopped

2 Stalks scallion (Green Onion), cleaned and chopped fine

1 Tbsp. sweet pickle relish

1 Avocado, pitted and peeled

Slices of cheese (swiss of cheddar)

  1. Preheat the toaster oven to 350 degrees. Butter one side of each of the slices of bread. Mix together the tuna, mayonnaise, celery, scallion, and sweet pickle relish.
  2. Toaster Oven Tuna Avocado Melt 2 Save
  3. Chop the avocado into small pieces then blend into the tuna mixture.
  4. Toaster Oven Tuna Avocado Melt 4Save
  5. Scoop 1/4 of the tuna mixture onto 3-4 slices of bread (the non-buttered side), and spread evenly over the bread. Place a slice of Swiss or cheddar cheese on the tuna mixture, then place the other piece of bread on top, with the butter side facing up. Place the tuna melt sandwiches on a baking pan and bake for about 10-12 minutes, until the cheese is melted.
  6. Remove the sandwiches from the toaster oven and serve immediately. These Avocado Tuna Melts make a tasty meal for lunch or dinner

Tuna & cabbage patties

1/2 cup grated carrot

1/2 cup finely chopped bell pepper

1 cup chopped baby spinach

1 can tuna (in water) 133g drained weight

1 cup puffed amaranth

2 eggs

1-4 Tbsp all-purpose flour (or gluten-free flour mix)

1/2 tsp sea salt

1/4 tsp black pepper

1/4-1/2 tsp chipotle chilli powder


  1. Peel and grate carrot. Deseed and finely chop (“finely” important!) bell pepper. Chop baby spinach. Add to a big bowl.
  2. Drain tuna in a colander, then put in a bowl and flake with a fork so there is no big pieces left. Add to big bowl.
  3. Add puffed Amaranth and spices, 2 eggs, 1 Tbsp flour and mix very well together.
  4. Preheat a cast iron pan over medium-low heat (NO oil yet).
  5. Try and form a patty. If it doesn’t form easily, add a little more flour. 1 Tbsp at a time until patties form easily. (Amount of flour will depend on wetness of tuna and carrots).
  6. Add a good splash of oil to the pan and wait for it to be really really hot. Then carefully add patties.
  7. Fry patties for about 3-5 minutes on one side, then flip carefully and fry another 3-5 minutes on the other side until golden.
  8. Enjoy with fresh salad

* Lance Seeto is the executive chef and owner of KANU Restaurant in Martintar, and the host of FBC-TV’s Exotic Delights.

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