Throughout my service in the Israel Defense Forces, I learned all sorts of skills that have been applicable to my everyday civilian life. I learned how to work efficiently under high stress, making studying for my general chemistry final feel manageable. I learned to appreciate and respect the opinions of others with whom I disagree, which helped me succeed in group projects at Columbia University. I learned the importance of organization, punctuality, and preparation, which proved invaluable as I worked in the demanding kitchen at Zahav in Philadelphia.
But the one skill that has served me the most thus far, and will no doubt continue to serve me well into the future? Burning tuna.
The food in the army was bad. Just plain and simple, bad. On base, a lone miserable cook was responsible for feeding around 100 starved and opinionated soldiers. Meals ranged from severely overcooked, underseasoned pasta to oven-baked, moth-crusted chicken breasts (true story). Occasionally, a cook would wake up on the right side of the bed and treat the base to “freshly made” (read: recently defrosted) schnitzel, a real delicacy compared to the regular menu.
Weeks in the field presented different gastronomic offerings. During long and arduous war-simulation weeks, we carried all of our gear, food, and water on our backs. “Food,” in this case, meant exactly two ingredients, hot dog buns and kabanos — a sort of sausage/Slim Jim hybrid. Needless to say, heartburn and constipation were serious issues.
Other, less intense weeks in the field involved boxes of combat rations. This shoebox-sized parcel, along with a loaf of bread, was calculated to feed 12 soldiers and usually included the following: 6 cans of tuna, one can of pickles, one can of beans, one can of corn, a can of fruit cocktail, and a bar of halva. Sometimes an item would be replaced by roasted peanuts (a true gem) or the risky, nuclear-green stuffed grape leaves. While these boxes of fun presented more options than our kabanos-filled days, after a while, tuna gets old. Real old.
The answer? Burn your tuna.
Burning tuna is fairly simple, and quite honestly, life-changing. This quick and easy process takes the preserved fish from a one-note, dry, chalky mouthful to a deep, smoky, juicy party in your mouth.
Here’s how you do it:
First, you have to buy tuna in oil. Not any fancy tuna conserva in cold-pressed Spanish olive oil, but a run-of-the-mill can of tuna packed in vegetable oil. Look for a can with the peel-off top. You’ll also need a lighter, a fork, and a roll of toilet paper.
Make sure you are out in the open, maybe on a hike, at the beach — any place where lighting a small fire is both safe and legal. This is not a technique for Lower East Side apartments.
Open the can carefully, being sure not to spill any of the oil. I repeat: DO NOT POUR OUT THE OIL. The oil is your friend here.
Take three or four squares of clean (duh) toilet paper, stack them one on top of the other, and gently press them into the center of the can, so that they begin to soak up the oil. Leave a small un-soaked ring along the outside, and light from all sides using a lighter.
The toilet paper acts as a wick, soaking up the oil just as a candle burns using the melted wax. Let the tuna cook from the top-down, undisturbed, anywhere from 15 to 30 minutes, until the fire has died down and the toilet paper is burnt.
Let the can cool slightly, and carefully remove the spent paper. Gently pour off any excess oil. Underneath, you will find salvation: beautifully charred tuna, gently warmed through, perfumed by smoke and kissed by fire.
Serve with canned pickles, corn, and fruit cocktail, or whatever your heart and stomach desire.
Shaul Armony spends most of his time baking bread, reading cookbooks, and thinking about his next meal. He is a student at Columbia University and splits his time between the U.S. and Israel, seeking out the best hummus plates and pizza slices.