Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Apple #326: Tilapia

Okay, remember that dinner party where we wound up talking about outer space? Well, one of the things we ate at that dinner party was some very tasty tilapia, prepared by our talented and thoughtful host.

I am not normally a fish-lover -- it's the texture that gets to me first, and then the fishy flavor, so lots of fish is pretty much off my menu. But I enjoyed the tilapia. There was a lemony sauce on top, nothing too overwhelming, but enough to give it a bit of sweet flavor. It was kind of like the fish version of chicken.

We all commented on it, complimented our host of course, wondered where it came from. (Aha, thought I. Some Daily Apple material here.) I guessed South America. Sounded like a good enough guess to everyone.

  • My guess was wrong. Tilapia comes from North Africa. The most prevalent species of Tilapia is the Nile Tilapia.
  • One thing to note is that some people confuse Nile Perch (Lates niloticus) and Nile Tilapia (Oreochromis niloticus). They are actually different types of fish.

Nile perch (Lates niloticus)
(Image from Wikipedia)

      • Nile perch live mainly in the major lakes of Africa
      • They have an almost pointy head, and they are silver with a blue tinge
      • They are super aggressive eaters, and will eat bugs, crustaceans, and other fish, including its own species.
      • Nile perch is very popular and has been introduced to a lot of places, but because it's so aggressive, it has either eaten or almost eradicated several species.

Nile Tilapia (Oreochromis niloticus)
(Image from the Southern Regional Aquatic Center)

  • Nile Tilapia like to eat water plants and algae, but they'll also eat little tiny animals and plankton. They don't filter the plankton the way that carp do. Instead, they secrete a mucous on their gills, the plankton gets trapped in the mucous until it forms a ball, and then the fish eats the ball of mucous and plankton. Ew.
  • They generally prefer warm fresh water, but they can tolerate brackish or salty water, too. They don't like true saltwater as much, though, so that means they tend to prefer living and swimming in rivers rather than in sea water. You can, of course, also raise them in ponds and tanks.

Nile Tilapia swimming around. One of the things they like to eat is mosquito eggs. So some scientists think they might be helpful in reducing the spread of malaria.
(Photo from FishChannel.com)

  • They don't mind a lot of nitrites in the water, and they're very resistant to diseases that tend to wipe out other types of fish.
  • They also spawn and grow quickly, so it doesn't take long before you can eat them. This is why lots of countries around the world are raising and eating tilapia.
  • Because they grow so quickly and easily, even in poorer conditions, they can become an invasive species, too, if they are not managed properly.

A bunch of farm-raised Nile tilapia that have just been caught.
(Photo from fishfarming.com)

  • But now, lots of people raise tilapia, mainly on fish farms, all over the world.
  • Most of the frozen tilapia sold in the US comes from China. Some food advisory people say to avoid tilapia raised in China and Taiwan because they tend to live in waters that are more polluted than what people in the US would allow.
  • But you can also get fresh tilapia that's grown up in Central America, in countries like Honduras, Ecuador, Costa Rica, and Trinidad and Tobago.
  • It's also raised in various places in the US, such as in Virginia and South Carolina. But it's such a relatively easy fish to raise, and it tolerates tank life very well, that probably you could find fresh tilapia that comes from just about any place.
  • In fact, they are so prolific that people in Indonesia used to regard them as pests, until they started eating them.

Fillets of Nile tilapia
(Photo from fishfarming.com)

  • Because it doesn't have a very strong fishy flavor, tilapia is becoming increasingly popular in the US. In fact, it is now the fifth-most consumed fish in the United States, behind other favorites like tuna and salmon.
  • Some chefs, though, poo-poo the tilapia. "Insipid," they call it. "Sponge-like," "flavorless," and "trash fish." These chefs are too good for the tilapia, apparently.

What grilled tilapia could look like on your plate
(Photo from MyRecipes.com's 7 Ways with Tilapia)

  • Mainly, you can grill it, broil it, or bake it -- pretty much the same as with most fish.
  • One easy recipe says to put the fillets on a piece of foil, give them each a tablespoon of butter, salt & pepper them, add some garlic, basil, and chopped tomato. Pour a cup of white wine over the lot, roll up the foil, stick it on the grill (medium heat) for 15 minutes until they're flaky. And that's it.
  • Another one that requires only slightly more work sounds pretty good to me, too: Tilapia with balsamic butter sauce. Simmer the vinegar and some garlic in a saucepan until it reduces, for about 5 minutes, set it aside. Salt & pepper the fish, put them in a skillet with some oil, and saute them for about 2 minutes per side. Then add some butter to the vinegar sauce, pour it over the fish, and you're done.

If you prefer spicy, you might want to try the Tilapia with Spicy Mango Salsa
(Recipe and Photo from In the Kitchen)

And with that, I am taking my leave for a bit. I'm going off on vacation. I'll be back probably on Sunday. Not sure whether I'll be able to give you a new entry on Sunday night or not. We'll see.

In the meantime, enjoy those fireworks and watermelons!

Len Spoden, "Two Sides to Every Tilapia," The Washington Post, August 8, 2007
Aquaculture blog, Tilapia Culture, February 3, 2007 -- a great overview
American Tilapia Association, FAQs for Tilapia -- these links open separate Word documents, which in some cases are not what the links say they're going to be.
Thomas Popma and Michael Masser, "Tilapia: Life History and Biology," Southern Regional Aquaculture Center, March 1999
Randy Sell, Department of Agricultural Economics, North Dakota State University, Tilapia


  1. You hit the mark... eventually, applelady. Indonesian...that's what the man at COSTCO said were the roots of our tilapia. Looking forward to more dinners on the backporch with the applelady & pals & cobbler.

  2. Tilapia is the only fish made for me that I liked as well.


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