Tilapia [Nile Tilapia, Oreochromis niloticus niloticus]
This fish, native to the Nile, can grow to 23 inches but is generally marketed here at about between 10 and 13 inches and 1 to 2 pounds pounds, like the photo specimen. Tilapia was already being farm raised in Egypt probably over 4000 years ago. It has since been transported to fresh water rivers and lakes in many countries. Tolerant of poor water quality, fast growing, cheap to feed and tasty to eat, Tilapia is an ideal aquaculture fish for warmer climates. It is produced in quantity in Southern California and Arizona, but most still comes from Mexico and South America.
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Tilapia is available by the cart load, live, whole and as frozen fillets, in Hispanic, Asian and Near Eastern markets. Frozen fillets are great for many uses and I always keep some on hand.
A while back tilapia was featured in fancy high priced restaurants - until people caught on they could get it for a couple bucks a pound at any ethnic market. Gourmet chefs just can't live with that.
Most tilapia are grey but there are some red ones and white ones available at a somewhat higher price. Tilapia flesh is mild, light in color and contains very little oil. It is firm and remains intact with just about any cooking method, including ceviche. The skin is often not eaten because some say it be slightly bitter and if not removed may discolor the flesh. This is not my experience, and I do see plenty of recipes cooking whole fish skin-on.
Buying: This fish is very comon both as frozen fillets and whole fish (usually cleaned, but not scaled). Buy whole fish only if you want to use parts other than fillets. With whole fish you'll pay the same for fillets but have to work for them. The frozen fillets are very distinctive, so you will be getting real tilapia. The photo specimen above was purchesd from a Philippine market in Los Angeles at 2014 US $1.99 / pound.
Scales: Tilapia is completely covered with fairly large scales which scrape off easily with moderate flying about.
Cleaning: Despite being a rather deep bodied fish, tilapia can be cleaned like a round fish, splitting along the centerline from the "vent" forward. There's a substantial swim blader to break through to get to the blood works just beneith the backbone. The gills pull out more easily than with many fish. For details see our Cleaning Round Fish page.
Fillet: Tilapia fillets fairly easily with plenty of fin rays and bones to follow. he rib cage has a lot of ribs. Carefully follow them, shaving the fillet from the ribs. When I get to the rib cage I cut the ribs from the backbone with kitchen shears and pull them from the fillet. You will feel what seems to be a row of substantial centerline spines but you need pull only the first three. The rest are soft and will not be noticeable when cooked.
The skirt (nape) is wide and quite thin, so the fillet will break off there, but it expands again at the belly where it's stiff and fatty. Cut these belly parts off - they are reserved for the cook. Lightly dust them with rice flour and frying skin-on in a lightly flavored olive oil. The heat causes the fat to liquify. Eat these cuts hot with some salt and lemon juice - fish oil is good for you (high in omega-3). This is sort of like with milkfish in the Philippines - the fatty belly is often sold separately at a higher price.
Yield: A 1 pound 5 ounce tilapia yielded 8-1/2 ounces of skin-on fillet including the belly fat (40%), 7-1/2 ounces skin-on belly trimmed (36%) and 6-3/4 ounces skinless (32%). This is pretty good yield for a low cost fish.
Skin: Tilapia skin shrinks very little when fried, so fillets can be fried skin-on. Some say the skin will make the flesh somewhat bitter, but I have not found that to be true. In any case, the skin is easy to remove using the standard long knife and cutting board Method.
Stock: Tilapia head, fins and bones produce a very usable, moderately flavored and slightly sweet stock with moderate oil. I've also tossed in the skins and still had very good results - no bitterness or overly strong flavor. Use your gravy separator to remove all fat.