Seared Tuna a l’Indienne

First of all, this is not a traditional Indian fish dish. That is why it has a French name, not an Indian one.

It is an original recipe using traditional Indian elements such as dal, chutney and papad, put together by me in untraditional ways.

I have to admit that the idea for this dinner special was not mine.

Dennis, also known affectionately (at his own behest, I must add) as Brown Sugar, who is the day shift cook at Salaam, came to me with a photograph from a cooking magazine along with a recipe. “Could we do this?” he asked.

The photograph illustrated a recipe for a seared fish steak (I believe that it was swordfish, but I may be wrong) served on a bed of southwestern-style seasoned black beans, with a crackling covering of deep fried yucca sticks, and topped with a pat of cilantro lime butter.

I had to admit, it looked delectable–and I could almost smell the different spices–chiles, cumin, onions, garlic, cilantro and lime, all mingling into a fragrant melange.

However, the thematic range of Restaurant Salaam doesn’t really extend to the southwestern US. Our menu encompasses the regions from the Eastern Mediterranean to the Middle East, to North Africa, India, Thailand and farther east now and again, but doesn’t really go as far west as New Mexico.

So I thought about what made that dish so appealing, with an eye toward translating it and “Salaamifying” it.

I think that the one of the most interesting aspects of this recipe are the contrasting textures. The fish is firm-fleshed and seared crisp on the outside and tender and rare on the inside. The beans are soft, but not mushy, the butter is fragrant with a meltingly soft texture. And the yucca is crispy-fried and starchy, adding yet another layer of flavor and texture.

I decided that we could make a compound butter out of my cilantro chutney recipe by simply blending it with softened butter. The chutney is fairly wet, which meant that I would have to squeeze some of the juice from the butter once it was blended, in order to roll it into cylinders and wrap it in plastic wrap, but I was certain that the flavor would be amazing, especially since I knew that the green chutney by itself is amazing with fish.

Instead of beans, I decided to make a sauce out of masoor dal, which cooks into a pale yellow puree all on its own. This, I seasoned simply with a tarka of deeply browned onions and garlic, with whole mustard and cumin seeds. I also added frozen methi greens to the dal, along with some dried methi greens, to give a slightly bittersweet fragrance to the sauce, as well as giving it body and a hint of green coloring. You could use any masoor dal recipe you wanted for this though, like one that includes summer vegetables such as squash, tomatoes or spinach.

The tuna was simple–I just seasoned it with a rubbing of salt and finely ground pepper. I could have coated it with coarsely crushed spices–like making steak a poivre, but I decided against adding the spices, since the butter and dal were both highly flavored. Then, I seared it on both sides in a very hot skillet, with very little oil.

Searing fish steaks is quite simple, and goes quickly. All you have to do is use a cast iron skillet, heated to smoking on high heat. Add a tiny bit of oil that has a high smoking point, like peanut or canola oil–I like to use a spray bottle, but it isn’t necessary. You just want enough to keep the fish from sticking–you don’t want the oil to puddle into a pool in the pan. Remember–you aren’t frying!

Then put the fish into the pan and let it brown into a nice crust on one side. You will see some opacity creep up the sides of the steak as the bottom cooks. You will know the bottom is done when it releases completely from the pan when you slide a spatula under it. If it sticks a bit, leave it be–it needs to cook a little more. When it is done, flip it and you will see that the flesh has turned a pretty golden brown.

How long does this take–only a few minutes.

Then, let it cook on the second side until it is completely golden brown on that side. After a minute of searing on the second side, clap a lid over the fish–I like to use a clear glass one, so I can watch what is going on in the pan. It should take about another minute or so to finish cooking that side.

The lid keeps the heat concentrated and helps cook the interior of the flesh as well as the outside. Leaving the lid off for a minute allows the outer edge to crisp lightly.

After that, using tongs, hold the fish so that each outer edge is seared against the pan as well. This only takes about a minute per side.

At this point, check the internal temperature to determine if the fish is done to your liking. Using an instant read thermometer, put the probe all the way into the center of the steak.

For rare, which is my favorite for tuna (which I am still not eating because of the mercury issue), the temperature should be between 120-125. For medium-rare to medium, 130-135 is perfect. For medium well, 140-145. For well done tuna, which I philosophically disagree with, cut the tuna steak in half longitudinally so you can cook it all the way through without turning the outer bits of the fish into sawdust. I consider well done tuna to be overdone, but some people like it that way. It is well done when you stick a knife in, pry it lightly apart and see that there is no pink lingering in the center of the fish.

For rare, if the fish hasn’t come to temperature yet, just pop the lid back on and cook for another minute or a minute and a half. Check the temperature again. Be quick about it–don’t walk away and leave the fish with the lid on, or you may overcook it.

For medium rare, do the same.

For medium well to well, add a very small amount of water, wine or vegetable broth to the pan, and clap the lid back on. Only use between 1/4-1/2 cup of liquid, which produces steam. Steam is very hot and hastens the cooking of the interior of the fish, while adding moisture. This keeps it from drying out and becoming rubbery, which is a sinful waste of a beautiful piece of fish.

My final conundrum was how to add an element of crunch, which was provided in the original recipe by the deep fried yucca.

I ended up using bits of pappad–black pepper, cumin and coriander flavored lentil wafers that I shallow fried and broke apart beforehand. These can be cooked ahead by several hours and can be kept in an airtight container until they are needed. They are lightly crisp and delicious and the jolt from the lightly crushed spices in this particular variety made up for me not spicing the fish itself.

Pappad can be toasted over an open flame instead of fried and while I have heard that they can be microwaved into crispiness, I have had little luck with that cooking method. They never seem to cook evenly that way, and are not as crisp, so for this recipe, I would stick with frying.

Finally, to garnish the dish, I chose to use some red onions sauteed in butter and some sriracha sauce, as well as a cherry tomato cut into the shape of a lotus blossom. Otherwise, the colors of the dish tended toward the green and yellow; the touches of red and violet balanced the plate perfectly, while adding still more layers of flavor.

Everyone who tried it whom I spoke with loved the balance of flavors and textures, and I was very fond of the way in which the relatively plain, high quality fish was enhanced by the addition of the Indian spiced dal and chutney butter, but was not overwhelmed. (I did take a taste of the one I cooked for the staff to try–one bite will certainly do no harm to either Kat or I–it was amazing.)

So, thank you ever so much, Dennis. Your idea was a great one, and you will see it come up as a special again.

I promise.

Here is a guide to making it, with links to recipes that you can use to make the chutney and the dal.

Seared Tuna a l’Indienne

canola or peanut oil for shallow frying
1 package papad
1 recipe cilantro chutney (obviosely leave out the fish and rice–just make the chutney)
1/2 pound butter, softened
1 recipe masoor dal tarka–to perfectly replicate what you see in the photograph, replace the tomatoes with one cup frozen methi leaves, and add 2 tablespoons dried methi leaves to the lentils as they cook, and leave out the chilies and ginger from the tarka.
3 tablespoons butter
3 medium sized red onions, thinly sliced
1 teaspoon salt
sriracha sauce as needed for plating
canola or peanut oil for searing
salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
4 tuna steaks, 6-8 ounces each


Heat the first measure of oil for shallow frying over medium heat. When it is hot, add pappad, one at a time. They will sizzle and balloon up and outward immediately, and begin to darken in color slightly. They are done in seconds. I like to use tongs to put them in the oil, and then as I am lifting them out and they are still pliable, I crinkle them up into interesting shapes. Then, I set them down on layers of paper towels to cool and drain.

Be sure not to let them brown too much–they should be pale tan–a little darker than regular file folders. They will darken slightly even after they come out of the oil, so take them out sooner rather than later.

After they are cool and drained, crumble them into interesting random shapes and put them in an airtight container.

Put the chutney in the bowl of a food processor or electric mixer. Add the softened butter, and process or whip until the two are thoroughly combined.

Lay out 2 feet of plastic wrap on the counter. Take handsful of the chutney butter, and squeeze out excess liquid. Shape 1/3 of the butter roughly into a cylinder and place in the center of the sheet of plastic until the butter extends along the length of the plastic wrap, with three inches of wrap free on either side of the butter. Roll the wrap over the cylinder tightly, and then twist the free wrap at both ends like you are wrapping up a giant piece of candy. Roll the encased butter on the counter to make it as even and neat as possible. Lay it on a baking sheet and place it in your freezer until it is firm. Repeat with the remaining 2/3 of the butter. Before serving bring out onto the counter to soften it. (You can make this weeks in advance and keep it in your freezer until the day it is needed.) This makes more butter than you will need for this recipe, but I find that it is so tasty and useful to have in the freezer, I don’t mind. It is great on fish, grilled shrimp and chicken and tastes good melted into plain steamed basmati rice. It is good melted into dal as well, and will perk up a so-so curry as well. Just cut off a bit of it and dump it into whatever you want to taste better.

For service, bring the butter roll to room temperature, and cut 1″ chunks from it. Shape these into balls, and flatten them on the bottom by pressing on a clean cutting board or plate.

Make the masoor dal, and keep it warm until you need it.

Melt the butter in a heavy-bottomed skillet on medium high heat and add the onions. Sprinkle with the teaspoon of salt and cook, stirring, until the onions turn translucent and soften, but not until they brown. You want to retain as much color in them as possible. Remove from heat, and set aside until you are ready to plate the fish.

Heat a cast iron skillet over high heat until it begins to smoke slightly. Add a tiny bit of oil–spray is easiest–to just barely coat the bottom of the pan and make it shiny. Rub salt and pepper into the tuna steaks and one or two at a time, cook as directed above. Cook no more than two at a time as more will lower the heat of the pan too much and the fish will not cook properly. To keep the fish warm until it is ready to serve, either have an oven heated to 150 degrees, and set each steak upon it as it is done, or serve each person their entree as it is done and don’t worry about sending everything out at once.

It also helps to have warm plates to serve on–you can heat them in the oven if they are oven proof, or run them through your dishwasher timed such that they will be on the dry cycle and thus very hot right when dinner is to be served. A very hot plate with hot dal on the bottom will keep the fish sufficiently hot so you can cook and plate everyone’s entree for service at the same time.

To plate the dish, ladle or spoon a scant 1/2 cup of dal on the center of a plate or shallow bowl. Place the tuna steak in the center of the dal. On two opposite sides, put small piles of sauteed red onions, and on the other opposite sides, put two small dots of sriracha sauce. Put a chutney butter ball on top of each fish steak, then poke two to three interestingly shaped pieces of papad into the butter, standing upright. If you wish, add cherry tomato lotus blossoms, finely diced red bell pepper bits or long pieces of chive to the composition, and serve it forth.

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  1. I’ve created a link to your recipe in our newest “Cast Iron Around the Web” entry at

    Comment by Rick Mansfield — June 30, 2008 #

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