Monday, March 29, 2010

Culinary matching 101: wines for classic blackened tuna

In the mid-eighties Paul Prudhomme’s blackened redfish permanently entered the vocabulary of the average American restaurant-goer, but you can argue that all the variations of blackened tuna have become even more ubiquitous in restaurants and bars, and practiced by adventurous home cooks.

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 up and down 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 the high quality, red fleshed tuna caught in the vicinity of the Islands) with a more Frenchified soy-mustard butter sauce (Yamaguchi is, after all, basically a French trained chef who applies fusion thought processes).

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: pen, paper, fork, knife, and usually five different wine glasses filled with five 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 a degree of difficulty (i.e. time required for multiple ingredients and steps) in Yamaguchi’s blackened tuna akin to what is considered "basic" in French cuisine, such as most of what you find in Julia Child’s Mastering the Art. So in that sense, it’s not really “101” in terms of preparation; but what makes it “101” is precisely the multiplicity of ingredients, giving it a variety of sensations resulting in “perfect” matches with not just one or two types of wines; but rather, with almost any number of different wines (in other words, “perfect” wine matches for any one specific dish don’t exist, except in the minds of irresponsible wine and/or culinary writers – hopefully, present company excepted).

Tasting wines with blackened tuna is “101” because it drives home this fundamental principle: that it is never so much a food type that determines “best” wine/food matches, but how the food type is prepared (i.e. the context in which food types are placed by their preparations). 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 did we know this? Through repeated tastings, of course; hundreds and hundreds of them, involving hundreds of different people, each expressing preferences. Our typical selection of wines tasted with Yamaguchi’s tuna usually consisted of a typical, elegant, fruit driven pinot noir from California or Oregon; a classic, fruit driven California chardonnay; and a fairly dry sparkling wine from anywhere (France, California, Italy, Spain, etc.) – because usually these three basic wine types, would have the highest percentage chance of matching this particular version of blackened tuna, despite their contrasting characteristics.

Then we would add at least a couple of other wines to the mix: a crisp, medium bodied sauvignon blanc or pinot gris; a soft, fruity riesling or pink wine; a moderately weighted, fruit forward California zinfandel or Australian syrah/shiraz; sometimes, even a big, rambunctious cabernet sauvignon or viognier. It never hurt to find out what “happens” when boy or girl – and white, red, pink, still or sparkling wines – meets blackened tuna.

The major components of Yamaguchi’s tuna, effecting the consistently varied results regarding “best” wine/food 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
• Mild tartness from use of vinegar and lemon, as well as in pickled ginger garnishes
• Slightly bitter sensations in the blackening spices as well as garnishes like Japanese spice sprouts
• Slight sweetness or natural fruitiness in garnishes like pickled ginger and chopped cucumber
• When utilized (often in Hawai`i, but rarely outside the Islands), the salty ocean 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 our tastings, we would ask our staff to take a bite of tuna before a deliberate 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 the tuna. Our usual findings:

On paper, the idea of blackening, or spicing up, filets of tuna seems like an unfortunate match with 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 or more bitter – 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 balanced by fatty sensations in the addition of beurre blanc style butter sauce as well as in the fatty flesh of high quality tuna itself. When talking about such sensory interaction, we’re talking about similarities of sensations; something many wine and food lovers may not prefer, but which many people actually like (this is why we drizzle sweet chocolate over vanilla ice cream rather than ketchup – the average person likes sweet on sweet, or combining similar sensations). And besides, there is plenty in Yamaguchi’s tuna that offers up contrasting sensations to typical full bodied, oaky chardonnay; such as the sweet/sour taste of pickled ginger, the salty taste of soy or seaweed. Combine that with the natural penchant of the aromatically fruity chardonnay grape to interact positively the earthy taste of mustard, it was never surprising to find that out of groups of a dozen people, there were always three, four, or even five individuals who really enjoyed the taste of blackened tuna with chardonnay.

Sparkling wines:
Individuals expressing preferences for good, yeasty, fairly dry sparklers with blackened tuna would always cite a different reasoning from those who liked chardonnays: the refreshing contrast of sensations like effervescence, tart acidity, fairly light alcohol, yeasty and fruit perfumes, and (depending upon the degree) the residual sugars in typical sparklers when tasted with the spicy heat of the blackening spices and hot mustards in Yamaguchi’s tuna, as well as the salty/earthy taste of soy sauce and the fatty qualities in the tuna and butter sauce. The refreshing contrasting works well with the lightest, simplest sparklers, like Italy’s Prosecco, but is even more elevated when the sparkler is choice (like French tête de cuvée); which is why the match has always worked gone over in a big way in our restaurants.

Pinot noir:
This third most popular match works for still a third different reason, all 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; 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.

This white wine grape makes a huge range of 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 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 tend 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: 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 berryish of pinot noir, or the tart, zesty edge of sparklers – that actual make 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 are “okay” with blackened tuna – but ultimately, not particularly exciting.

Heavy, light or medium bodied reds: On the other hand, high tannin reds dominated by dense, bitter sensations (like most cabernet sauvignons) as well as soft tannin reds characterized by accentuated fruitiness (that French Beaujolais) tend to offer too much extreme in the way of sensations to make an easy match for blackened tuna. But unlike medium bodied white and pink wines, 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.) 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, cardomom, allspice, etc.) spices to bounce off the blackening and mustard spices, 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, think in terms of similarity and contrast, and don’t forget how umami can often pull things together. 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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