High in protein and low in saturated fats, fish is a recommended part of most healthy diets. However, the world's oceans are vastly over-fished, endangering species and causing shortages in the marketplace that result in skyrocketing prices. Commercially farmed fish is an affordable, quality alternative and tilapia is the third most popular cultivated fish in the world.
Tilapia is a mild tasting freshwater fish with firm, white flesh. Because the majority of the tilapia found in your local fish market are farm raised, it is relatively inexpensive. Versatile and adaptable to many cuisines, recipes and cooking styles, tilapia has become a favorite in many home kitchens and with professional chefs. Most tilapia comes to the market filleted, however in fish markets catering to Asian customers, tilapia can be found whole.
Cooking With Tilapia
Adaptable and affordable, tilapia is often substituted for more expensive fish like sole and flounder. Tilapia does not have a distinctive taste of its own, so it is a perfect fish to use in recipes that use marinades, herbs and spice rubs. The texture of the fillets makes it a great choice for broiling, sauteing, frying and baking, however the fillets do not hold up well to outdoor grilling. Whole tilapia can be successfully grilled, however the bones can be a problem for some diners.
Tilapia is a superior and economical source of low fat, low calorie protein. Because of their rapid growth to market weight, tilapia have little or no problem with mercury content, which is often an issue with farmed fish. However, the food pellets used in commercial fish farming usually contain a high percentage of corn or soy. As a result, tilapia are not high in the heart-healthy omega 3 oils and are high in omega 6 oils. While some omega 6 oil is necessary for good health, too much is thought to negatively affect blood clotting factors, increasing the risk of stroke and heart attacks. However, on balance and in moderation, tilapia is a sound nutritional choice.
Tilapia has benefits beyond the dinner table. These fish are omnivores with huge appetites and they are often used to control the growth of invasive aquatic plants in rivers and lakes. In parts of the developing world, tilapia have been introduced into fresh water streams and ponds to eat malaria-carrying insects. However, because tilapia are also prolific breeders, the population of these introduced species has to be carefully monitored so they don't disturb delicate ecosystems.
Getting The Best Tilapia
Cookbook author Mark Bittman refused to include recipes using tilapia on his book devoted to fish cookery because he found the fish to have a "muddy" taste. This unleashed a stream of protest from tilapia aficionados, who insist that correctly raised tilapia is delicious. There is a marked difference in flavor between the tilapia raised on farms in Asia and the fish raised in the United States. Monterey Bay Aquarium scientists have extensively researched aquatic farming methods and recommend U.S. raised tilapia for superior taste, texture and health standards.