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Culinary matching 101: wines for classic blackened tuna

In the mid-eighties Paul Prudhomme’s blackened redfish permanently entered the vocabulary of average American restaurant-goers; but since then, you can argue that it is variations of blackened tuna that have become more ubiquitous in restaurants, bars and, no doubt, countless home kitchens.

For over thirteen years I worked with one of America’s original Euro-Asian fusion (a.k.a. East-West or Pacific Rim) style chefs, Roy Yamaguchi; and during that period, opened over two dozen restaurants for him, from Hawai`i to the East Coast. One of the most popular dishes at the Roy’s restaurants, since day one, has been Yamaguchi’s blackened ‘ahi tuna (‘ahi being the Hawaiian name for yellowfin or bigeye, the high quality, red fleshed tuna caught in the vicinity of the Islands) served with a Frenchified soy-mustard butter sauce (Yamaguchi is, after all, basically a French trained chef who happens to apply fusion thought processes) and an array of other ingredients.

Yamaguchi’s blackened tuna also served as the most basic dish utilized for our wine/food matching staff training; part of our “wine & food 101,” which hundreds upon hundreds of servers as well as chefs experienced in this scenario: sitting down with pen and paper, fork and knife, and four or five wine glasses filled with different wines.

As you will see in the recipe (snipped from Roy’s Feasts From Hawai`i) included at the end of this piece, there is some degree of difficulty in Yamaguchi’s blackened tuna that is slightly beyond “101” in terms of time and preparation. What makes it “101” is, precisely, the multiplicity of ingredients involved, giving the dish a variety of sensations that make it possible to find “perfect” matches with not just one or two types of wines, but rather almost any number of other different wines.

This is why tasting dishes with a variety of wines is essential to restaurant wine/food training: what you invariably find is that single “perfect” wine and food matches really do not exist (except, unfortunately, in the minds of irresponsible wine or culinary writers). Perfect matches don’t exist among any given restaurant staff, and they certainly don’t exist among people or restaurant guests in general. When you take, say, 50 people and ask them which of four different wines taste best with a single dish like blackened tuna, you usually get a show of hands favoring all four wines. This is because of this reality: any number of wines can compliment a dish for any number of reasons, all of them valid.

Tasting wines with blackened tuna can also be a “101” exercise because it drives home this fundamental principle: it is never so much a food type (like “tuna,” or “beef”) that determines “best” wine/food matches, but how the food is prepared. In a dish like blackened tuna in soy mustard butter sauce, for instance, blackening spices can have just as much an impact on how a person perceives a wine match as the soy and mustard in the butter sauce, or the taste of tuna itself.

In this sense, looking at how wines are matched with blackened tuna gives you a good idea of how, or why, almost all wines and foods are matched. How do we know this? Through the repetition of blackened tuna/wine tastings involving as many as 50 to 100 people at a time. Our usual line-up of wines selected to be tasted with Yamaguchi’s tuna consisted of

• A typical, elegant, fruit driven pinot noir from California or Oregon
• A classic, full bodied, fruit driven California chardonnay, and
• A fairly dry sparkling wine from anywhere (France, California, Italy, Spain, etc.).

To that, we would add one or two other wines to the mix: often,

• A crisp edged, dry, medium bodied white wine like a sauvignon blanc or pinot gris
• An outwardly soft, fruity Riesling, or rounded pink wine
• A moderately weighted, fruit forward California zinfandel or Australian syrah/shiraz, or
• Sometimes a big, rambunctious cabernet sauvignon, or another full bodied white such as a viognier.

The components of Yamaguchi’s tuna having the most impact on how people perceive wine matches:

• The fleshy, oily, saline taste of good quality tuna
• Palate stinging spices in the blackening spices as well as the hot mustard
• Saltiness from soy sauce
• Fatty, oily butter and cream in the French butter sauce
• Mildly sharp acidity from use of vinegar and lemon
• Slightly bitter sensations in the blackening spices, sesame seeds, as well as garnishes like Japanese spice sprouts
• Sweet/tart sensations in garnishes like pickled ginger or cucumber (tsukemono)
• When utilized (often in Hawai`i, but rarely outside the Islands), the salty, briny taste of fresh seaweeds
• Last but not least, umami-related sensations in blackening spices, soy, mustard, seaweeds, as well as the tuna itself (re my Deconstructing umami for more detailed treatment)

In this context, we have to count a minimum of nine separate sensations that could effect the perception of a possible wine match. In our tastings, we would ask our staff to take a bite of tuna before a sip of each and every wine, and simply decide what they liked best. Then together, we would puzzle out exactly what it is about each wine that we like so much with this multifaceted dish. Our usual findings:

Chardonnay with blackened tuna

On paper, the idea of blackening, or spicing up, filets of tuna seems like an unfortunate match for full bodied chardonnays; especially since the high alcohols as well as oak tannins (i.e. bitter sensations) associated with typical chardonnays theoretically makes the sensation of hot spices taste even hotter, more bitter, and in the end, unpleasant. Where a chef like Yamaguchi turns the theory upside down is in the fact that this is not simply a spicy dish, but a spicy dish that is also balanced by fatty sensations in beurre blanc style butter sauce, besides the fatty flesh of high quality tuna itself.

When talking about such interactions, we’re basically talking about similarities of sensations: fatty sensations in the dish complimented by fatty, viscous, sometimes buttery sensations in the wine. This may be something that not all wine and food lovers may prefer, but which many people actually do. Preference for similarity, after all, is why we drizzle sweet chocolate over sweet vanilla ice cream, rather than ketchup – in many food contexts, the average person prefers the taste of sweet on sweet over the contrasting of sour on sweet, and that’s just the way it is.

Other degrees of contrasting, of course, also can be beneficial to a chardonnay/blackened tuna match, and there is always plenty enough in Yamaguchi’s dish offering up contrasts to fatty, full, oaky chardonnays; such as the sweet/sour taste of pickled ginger, the salty taste of soy, or the briny taste of seaweed or the tuna itself. Combine that with the natural penchant of an aromatically fruity chardonnay grape to interact positively with the earthy taste of mustard, it is never surprising to find that in almost any group, a large number of people express a preference for chardonnay over other wines with blackened tuna.

Sparkling wines with blackened tuna

Individuals expressing preferences for good, yeasty, fairly dry sparklers with blackened tuna would always cite a different reasoning from those who prefer chardonnays: they like the refreshing contrast of sensations that the effervescence, tart acidity, fairly light alcohol, yeasty and fruit perfumes, and sometimes the residual sugars that typical sparklers offer when tasted against the spicy heat of the blackening spices and hot mustards in Yamaguchi’s tuna, as well as against the salty/earthy taste of soy sauce and the fatty qualities in the tuna and butter sauce.

The refreshing contrasting works especially well with the lightest, simplest sparklers, like Italy’s Prosecco or Spanish cava, yet could be even more elevated when the sparkler is a more complex, yeasty sparkler (like a California méthode Champenoise, or even French tête de cuvée champagne); which is why the match has always worked gone over in a big way in our restaurants.

Pinot noir with blackened tuna

This third most popular match works for still a third reason, mostly related to the so-called “fifth” sensation: umami. Without going into detail, umami is essentially the pleasing sensation the palate feels when interacting with foods containing elevated amounts of amino acids in the glutamate family; which is why Parmigiano is sprinkled on pasta, mushrooms and truffles enhance meats, stock based sauces enhance dishes, or in Hawai`i, why ogo (chopped fresh red seaweed) “completes” tuna poke.

Pinot noirs are, by nature of being red wines (i.e. fermented on skins), deep and complex in flavor. Yet among reds, pinots are also fairly soft, balanced, smoothly textured, buoyant and inundated with natural spice: qualities that give wines made from this grape the highest percentage chance of perhaps any other wines (white, red, pink or sparkling) of tasting delicious with dishes (any dishes, from white to red meats) prepared with high umami ingredients. In Yamaguchi’s blackened tuna: the fish itself, and especially the mustard, soy sauce, and blackening spices.

Although it is not so much similar or contrasting sensations as umami that makes pinot noirs taste so good with blackened tuna, the fact that pinot noir is a softer (i.e. less bitter) type of red wine also helps with this fatty, fleshy fish, since high tannin reds (like those made from cabernet sauvignon and other “Bordeaux” grapes) are not good fits with the high iodine content of most fish. Finally, the slightly bitter taste of the peppers and sandalwood in blackening spices, hot mustard as well as spice sprouts do add a degree of balance to the slight bitterness of grape tannin and French oak sensations found in typical pinot noir.

Riesling with blackened tuna

This grape makes a huge range of white wines: from bone dry to slightly sweet and very sweet; from extremely light (i.e. 7%-8% alcohol wines from Germany’s Mosel-Saar-Ruwer) to as full as any chardonnay (13%-14% alcohol wines from Alsace, Washington and California, Australia and New Zealand, etc.). But by and large, it is rieslings with just slight degrees of sweetness and light to moderate alcohol levels that do best with blackened tuna, as soft fruitiness in any wine offers delicious contrast to hot spices. Besides heat, residual sugar (in wines as well as dishes) balances salty ingredients (re the soy in blackened tuna), and the sugar/acid balance of classic riesling strikes an easy chord with sweet/sour pickled ginger.

In our experience, however, we have found that dry style rieslings that are balanced with exceptional fruitiness in the aroma and flavor can do just as well as rieslings with actual residual sugar (although overly tart, sour rieslings with narrow fruit profiles offer very little in the way of flavorful contrast). Conversely, we have found that rieslings tilted towards emphatically sweet fruitiness also make less desirable matches; since excess residual sugar tends to overburden the palate with sensations that seem extraneous in the context of a dish already laden with a multiplicity of sensations.

Medium bodied dry white and pink wines with blackened tuna

Whites made from grapes like sauvignon blanc, pinot gris (a.k.a. pinot grigio), albariño, and grüner veltliner, as well as pink wines like dry rosé and vin gris, tend to be neither light nor heavy; and as such, would seem to be natural matches for aggressive dishes like blackened tuna. But in reality, we have always found that it is wines of at least some extremes – like the weight and oak of chardonnay, the tannin and spiced berry taste of pinot noir, or the tart, zesty edge of sparklers – that actually made the most positive impact. Wines of moderate alcohol, moderate acidity, moderate fruit intensity, etc. tend to taste just “moderately good” with blackened tuna. In short, wines that taste just “okay” with blackened tuna are often perceived as exactly that: less exciting matches.

Spiced reds with blackened tuna

High tannin reds dominated by dense, bitter sensations (like most cabernet sauvignons) as well tend to offer too much contrast to make a preferred match for blackened tuna. But that doesn’t mean soft tannin reds characterized by accentuated fruitiness (like French Beaujolais) automatically make ideal matches.

However, medium bodied reds with soft tannins and a modicum of spiced fruitiness (besides pinot noir: softer styles of zinfandel, syrahs, syrah/grenache/mourvèdre blends, lemberger, etc.) can do surprisingly well with blackened tuna. As long as the tannin levels are moderated (not outwardly rough or bitter) enough to work with the fish, and the fruit qualities are tinged with variations of peppery (peppercorn or chile) or brown (i.e. suggesting cinnamon, clove, cardamom, allspice, etc.) spices to bounce off the blackening and mustard spices in the dish, these types of red wines generally hold you in good stead.

There is, of course, a world of interesting wines now available to us, in restaurants and in stores, for fusion style dishes (see my piece, Basic guidelines to matching the Asian palate & fusion dishes). Whenever combining multifaceted dishes with complex wines, the best policy is to let common sense be your guide, and to think in terms of similarity and contrast (let’s not forget umami!).

Ultimately, we are all ruled by personal preference; and so, if anything, the golden rule remains: to thine own self be true.

Roy Yamaguchi’s

Soy-mustard sauce
1/4 cup Colman's mustard powder
2 tablespoons hot water
2 tablespoons unseasoned rice vinegar
1/4 cup soy sauce

Beurre blanc (white wine butter sauce)
1/2 cup white wine
2 teaspoons white wine vinegar
1 teaspoon fresh lemon juice
1 tablespoon minced shallot
2 tablespoons heavy cream
1/2 cup unsalted butter, chopped
1/4 teaspoon salt
Freshly ground white pepper to taste

Blackening spice*
1 1/2 tablespoons paprika
1/2 teaspoon cayenne powder
1/2 tablespoon pure red chile powder
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground white pepper
1/2 tablespoon ground sandalwood (optional)

1 tuna filet (preferably Hawaiian 'ahi), about 2 inches thick and 5 inches long (about 8 ounces)

2 or 3 tablespoons red pickled ginger
1/2 teaspoon black sesame seeds
1 ounce Japanese spice sprouts or sunflower sprouts (top 2 inches only)
1 tablespoon seeded and diced yellow bell pepper (optional)
1 tablespoon cucumber, cut into matchsticks (optional)

To prepare the soy-mustard sauce, mix the mustard powder and hot water together to form a paste. Let sit for a few minutes to allow the flavor and heat to develop. Add the vinegar and soy sauce, mix together, and strain through a fine sieve. Chill in the refrigerator.

To prepare the beurre blanc, combine the wine, wine vinegar, lemon juice, and shallot in a saucepan and bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Reduce the liquid until it becomes syrupy. Add the cream, and reduce by half. Turn the heat to low and gradually add the butter, stirring slowly (do not whisk) until it is all incorporated. Be careful not to let the mixture boil, or it will break and separate. Season with salt and pepper and strain through a fine sieve. Transfer to a double broiler and keep warm.

Mix all the blackening spices together on a plate, and dredge the tuna on all sides. Heat a lightly oiled cast-iron skillet and sear the tuna over high heat to the desired doneness (about 15 seconds per side for rare, to 1 minute per side for medium-rare). Cut into 16 thin slices.

For each serving, arrange 4 slices of the tuna in a pinwheel or cross shape on the plate. Ladle a little of the soy-mustard sauce in two opposing quadrants between the tuna, and ladle the beurre blanc in the other two quadrants. To garnish, put a small mound of the red pickled ginger on the beurre blanc on either side, and sprinkle the sesame seeds over the soy-mustard sauce. Arrange the spice sprouts, bell pepper, and cucumber at the very center of this pinwheel.

* There is a Yogi brand of sandalwood available by calling the company in New Orleans (504-486-5538). If you prefer, you can use 1/4 cup of any Cajun spice blend instead of making up you own blackening spice.

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