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Paradise Found

Loving Tuna: a New Year's Revolution

DAVID DARMANIN of Taverna Sugu suggests that as a nation we seldom give a hoot about having the best tuna in the world, at the best price.

Loving Tuna: a New Year's Revolution


Main Ingredient Tuna
Preparation Time 5-15 minutes
Cooking Time Less than 30 mins
Course Main
Recipe Serves 2
Recipe Type Low-carbFishModern: Maltese
There has been much ado about tuna in the press over the past few years. I can think of no reason for the general public not to perceive this industry as…how shall I put this…fishy.

Yet, before we launch any crusade aimed at putting locals off this lovely, lovely fish – it would be proper to note that as consumers, we know so little about the endemic treasure tuna is to Malta that it is safe to say that we have been boycotting this product for years already. Otherwise salmon (yes, the farmed imported, fatty fish of the Northern seas) would not outsell fresh sushi-grade tuna at the fishmongers’.

It would be unfair to say that we have no national pride in Malta. If we hadn’t, we would not go so aggressively defensive every time foreigners express any slight dismay towards the very same issues we hate most about our culture.

We are self-critical, and that is healthy. We loathe the service given by some bus drivers and many taxi drivers. We don’t like it when politicians are implicated in blatant corruption. Some of us are even asking why on earth our legislators have been reluctant on introducing divorce, or on updating censorship laws. Sadly however, debate in Malta is exclusively reserved to those living here permanently - that is unless one enjoys the sound of choral retorts on the lines of “go back to your country”. Bah. I’m not quite sure this attitude can exactly be referred to as pride, but it is definitely not the type of pride that will get tuna on every restaurant menu in Malta.

The Med is running out of blue-fin tuna, and I for one, am all out for saving the species from extinction and lay off it for a while. I am all for limited quotas on blue-fin and restricting the season for as much as needed in order to allow the species to regenerate. Yellow-fin is a different story. Albeit far more populous, yellow-fin tuna is not inferior to the blue-fin variety. It is blue-fin that is simply superior to any other ingredient in the world, but this does not take away any of the flavour, colour and texture invariably flaunted by yellow-fin. You cut into it and it screams ‘quality’.
You bite into it and you shed a tear.

We may not have divorce legislation yet in Malta, but we DO have the best tuna in the world. I’m not saying this, Japan is. Walk the streets of Tokyo and let them know where you come from. Many will respond with “aaaah, tuna!” Walk the corridors of ITS and suggest the occasional purchase of a fresh (as opposed to stale-frozen) tuna slab and you’ll be met with “Eh, eh. Tuna you said? Eh, eh. U ijja.”

Tuna is to Malta as Chianina is to San Gimignano. Every restaurant in Malta should flaunt tuna, more so when it costs Eur12 per kilo here and ten times more on the other side of the world. Every local chef needs to be taught how to slice it with pride, match it with the right stuff and cook it with love. Many chefs can cook a decent tuna steak, mind you. But most of us treat it as an alien ingredient. And that is wrong. Before I shoot myself in the foot, I have to admit that tuna is not included in my fixed menu at Sugu. Whenever I can, I feature it on the specials board – knowing perfectly well that at a traditional Maltese restaurant tuna should not be offered as a special but as an ‘obvious’. But as hard as I try to convince punters to go for it, many will opt for something else - equally local and beautiful :). What I am trying to say is that after all, this is an issue of supply and demand, and I am questioning both. Not many restaurants respect tuna, which reduces supply. As a result, not many diners opt for a nice ‘just-seared’ tuna, which of course, reduces demand.

Kudos to the Ministry of Rural Affairs for running a campaign aimed at deterring local consumers from imported pork and start appreciating the local cheaper and superior product. 2011 may be a good time to do the same with tuna.

A lot of the tuna slab I bought yesterday remained unsold. At the end of service, some 600g were transferred to a fridge compartment which I eventually intend labeling “David’s lunch for tomorrow”.

This is how I cooked it:

Tonn bil-Merqtux

You need:

600g tuna, sliced in two chunky steaks
Fresh marjoram
Freshly ground black pepper
Extra virgin olive oil
Rock salt (preferably Gozitan)
A teflon-coated pan or griddle


Cut two or three small slits on each side of the steaks and stuff fresh marjoram leaves into them. Smear some olive oil onto the steaks and rub with salt and pepper. Sear your tuna on a hot pan and braise in the oven under a lid for 5-15 minutes (depending on the thickness of the tuna). Cutting the steak open should reveal a pink colour. If not, dispose into the cat food bowl and repeat the process until done the proper way, and by that, I do not mean ‘well-done’.



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David Darmanin
January 21, 2011
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Chili flakes with tuna, yummy. I never tried it with oregano but I shall...

Other ingredients that go superbly with tuna (not all at one go):

- Ginger
- Raisins
- Balsamic Vinegar
- Honey or maple syrup
- Lime juice
- Apricots
- Figs
- Avocado
- And of course soy sauce and wasabi :P

January 20, 2011
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I cook mine in a similar way but use oregano instead instead of marjoram, and sometimes a touch of chili flakes. I also sear it in a ridged pan as the surface caramelises. Works a treat!

David Darmanin
January 18, 2011
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I know what you mean Derek, because I tend to feel anxious before ordering tuna at some restaurants. Mind you, I would not expect an overcooked tuna steak at Del Capo, Barracuda, Wigi's or places of the same ilk. Sure there are times when chefs make silly mistakes. Neither myself nor super-established chefs are exceptions to the human propensity to fuck up at times.
But let's talk about the standard... let me offer a different angle to the story.
Cooks who take their work seriously at commercial restaurants will dread the thought of having a plate sent back to the kitchen. Granted that there are those who couldn't give a toss, just like in any other industry. But for the many who take their work seriously, a plate sent back screws up the fun at table, and eventually the chef's motivation that is often driven by self-gratification and ego.
Established medium-range to high-end restos, those with a steady high-spending regular clientele can afford a what-you-see-is-what-you-get attitude. Tuna is served pink, and if you don't like it you'll have to convince them otherwise. Some will even refuse cooking it through.
Commercial, main-stream restaurants have to respond directly to demand and (using an industry term) 'bend-over'if they are to survive. When I ran a main-street kitchen, I remember including this phrase in the description of my tuna steak: "We cook our tuna nice and pink. If you don't like it that way please let us know and we'll cook the living daylights out of it." I had also made sure that the front of house communicates this option to punters. And yet, when plates did come back it was invariably for tuna "that is still raw", even if the overdone option was never specified by the patron.
Personally, I'm over the phase where I judge others who like things differently. Gustibus non disputandi. If they like it differently, let them have it, but let them know that this is not the ordinary way of doing things in your kitchen.
Some restaurants are very risk averse, and will simply play it safe so as not to offend customers' feelings. Hence an overcooked steak comes as a standard. This is sad, but it can be realistically overcome by educating Tom, Dick and Harry on the beauty of eating tuna the way it should be eaten. In Puglia this problem is inexistent with tuna, because there is general consensus on how it should be eaten.
Sadly, certain restaurants keep tuna in their fridges for days on end, and although they risk serving anyway it to keep wastage at bay, they will not risk giving you scombrosis by serving it any other way than overdone. That category of restaurant deserves stoning.
But I still believe that generally - the issue lies with both supply and demand.

Derek Fenech
January 18, 2011
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Dave I have to disagree with you on this one. Many chefs CAN'T cook a decent tuna steak, unfortunately and this is what puts off people from ordering this delicacy. I absolutely hate it when I am served tuna, which in my mind I am already savouring its succulent medium-rare texture and then I am served a piece of (Gordon Ramsay's F word) hard flavourless "steak". So thank you but I prefer to occasionally buy it for my personal consumption and selfishly indulge in its flavours.

David Darmanin
January 18, 2011
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@ Mauro

Tricky question. Unlike sea bass or sea bream, the tuna we normally find in the market is not farmed but penned. Whereas the difference in quality between farmed and wild bass or bream is stark; penned and wild tuna taste very much the same. Part of the reason for this is that tuna is not born in captivity, but caught in the wild and kept in tanks until it grows to an ideal size for resale.
As far as I know, the season for blue-fin opens when the fish is rather young - so chances are that if you find an adult blue-fin caught in the wild and never kept in pens, you would be buying a product as illegal as cocaine.
Normally the yellow-fin we find for sale at any fishmonger is also the penned variety.
If you're after tuna species that are caught in the wild, you should visit Connie's fish shop in summer for Pastardella; Kubrit and many other sub-species available that are caught by smaller-sized trawlers and that do not enter the entire blue-fin/yellow-fin penning system.

January 18, 2011
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Where do you suggest buying some good Fresh Tuna and not that which you tend to find mainly being the caged one

David Darmanin
January 17, 2011
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@ Robert

You are right, rock salt is different from sea salt.

As far as I know, proper rock salt is seldom used for cooking, and I have not seen any food grade rock salt on Maltese shelves so far. Out of habit, many cooks including myself refer to coarse sea salt (melh ohxon) as rock salt.

The salt I use is additive-free, unrefined sea salt crystals from Marsalforn saltpans. The guy I buy from is called Leli, who lives and works from his house in the limits of Zebbug.

I'm planning on paying him a visit this week or next. I can bring you a packet which you can pick up from Sugu if you like. Alternatively, please send me an email on so I can email you his home number.

Robert Zahra
January 17, 2011
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Dear David, I would like to ask you about the Rock Salt from Gozo mentioned in the recipe. As far as i know, Rock Salt is different from sea salt - would it be possible to tell me from where i can get rock salt or which Gozitan brand produces it, please? And is rock salt better than sea salt? Thanks. Regards, Robert.

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