Tilapia are considered the "aquatic chicken" of the food business, the quintessential factory fish. They are easy to farm; they spawn in profusion under most breeding conditions; and their bland flavor makes them an ideal partner for marriage with other ingredients. Tilapia, even those that live wild in freshwater, have the lowest mercury content of all fish. This is because they are lean and grow very quickly, preventing the time it takes to absorb environmental pollutants from their habitats. Tilapia are available at most supermarkets, prepackaged and sold as either loins or fillets.
A Cut Above the Confusion
Tilapia "loins" do not exist; fish don't have loins. The term is a marketing ploy designed by food manufacturers to arouse positive connotations in the buyer. "Loin" suggests a cut of protein that is juicy and meaty, when, actually, tilapia are so naturally lean that they tend toward dryness when cooked. But this quality isn't necessarily a drawback. Tilapia's low fat content allows you to control precisely how much fat goes into any dish, whether you prefer your fish steamed or you like to smear tartar sauce on deep-fat fried tilapia.
Why Fillet? Why Not Filet?
"Fillet" is a general term referring to any boneless cut of meat or the boned side of a fish. Filet mignon, while also boneless, is the only exception in terms of spelling. Filet mignon, by the way, is French for "dainty fillet." Filet, as a French cooking term, is also a verb to describe a technique by which a chef or a butcher removes a filet mignon from a larger beef tenderloin. The tenderloin sits next to the ribs along the backbone. It's shaped like an elongated teardrop, and its tapered end is the filet mignon. This process pertains to tilapia because they are typically sold with pin-bones removed, making them a sort of "fillet" of fish.
Tilapia: A Viable, Sustainable Hybrid
Farmed tilapia are hybrids, derived not from a single species but from several. Each generation inherits strong traits from multiple ancestors, increasing the chances of future generations' survival. Tilapia are only partly carnivorous, subsisting on algae and other plant-based food, so they consume less fish as prey and thus ingest smaller amounts of mercury. Additionally, they excrete and absorb fewer toxins, keeping their living conditions within fish farms fairly sanitary.
A Few Health Facts
Tilapia's natural leanness unfortunately translates into a low omega-3 fatty acid content, 67 milligrams per ounce. Salmon, on the other hand, boasts 702 milligrams per ounce. These numbers reflect nutrition facts gleaned from raw, farm-raised species. Farmed tilapia is nonetheless nutrient-dense, with calcium, selenium, niacin, vitamin D, 20 grams of protein and zero carbohydrates per 1 1/3 cup of uncooked fish.