Friday, 23 July 2010


You may have you noticed exotic farmed fish on your supermarket’s fish counter. Catfish farmed in the Mekong Delta of Vietnam (sold as river cobbler or basa), for example, has become an established feature on the cold slab. I am cooking a couple of Tilapia fillets tonight. Tilapia is now farmed in the UK, and could become a common item in supermarkets.

Tilapia is the common name given to around a hundred different cichlid species. It has been fished in Africa and Eastern Mediterranean countries for centuries. Tilapia was probably first farmed in ancient Egypt. It is probably the third most commonly farmed fish in present day aquaculture globally, after salmon and catfish. The Nile Tilapia, Oreochromis niloticus, is the main Tilapia species reared in aquaculture.

Tilapia is a warm-water fish that is farmed in warm regions (e.g., Africa, Eastern Mediterranean, Asia, Latin America). However, it has been touted as a “future food fish” for UK fish farming, where use can be made of waste heat (e.g., from power stations). Fish farms, for instance, in South East England, are aiming to supply supermarkets in direct competition with imported Tilapia. The species has a relatively low environmental impact when farmed, in that Tilapia are omnivorous and can be fed a vegetarian diet (therefore avoiding the ecologically damaging dredging of small fish as feed). The main concern with Tilapia is that they can become a troublesome invasive species, but escapees are unlikely to survive in the cold waters of British rivers.

There is no tradition of cooking with Tilapia in the UK, and therefore nothing in my library of cookbooks on how to cook it. The first thing, as a cook, to note is that Tilapia is not an oily fish, and it is marketed as a sustainable alternative to cod and other white fish. It is often described as having a “bland taste” or “neutral flavour”, but this has been given a positive marketing spin, in that “it takes flavours very easily”.

A trawl of Internet recipes suggests that Tilapia fillets dry out easily (so grilling is best avoided) and they should only be cooked for a few minutes in a pan (e.g., seared and pan-fried in butter or vegetable oil). A wide range of robust ingredients are often added in these recipes, including chillies, lime, coriander and garlic. When baked, for example, with cream and herbs, vegetables, tomato sauce, or topped with cheese, Tilapia can be cooked for longer (up to 20-30 minutes in some recipes). They can also be steamed or broiled.

I pan-fried my Tilapia fillets. After soaking them in salty water for several minutes, I gave them a very light coating of flour and seasoning, and cooked them for a few minutes each side in groundnut oil in a hot frying pan. I served the fillets on top of a tomato sauce containing finely-chopped onion, garlic, capers and basil, with new potatoes, roasted carrots and courgettes, and a side salad of freshly-picked salad leaves from the garden. It was helped down with a glass of chilled Sauvignon blanc. No complaints!