"More and more, we're seeing tilapia in fish markets being sold as a substitute for red snapper and other whole fish. But every farm-raised tilapia I've ever had (and all the tilapia sold here is farm-raised) has had an undesirable, muddy flavor. I avoid this fish when I see it, and recommend that you do also."
Mark Bittman, Fish
I disagree. Tilapia is an inexpensive farmed fish, but it can have a delicate, flaky texture and a clean flavor. It also can be awful. Buying and ordering tilapia is a roll of the dice. Here are a few of my recent experiences:
Whole steamed tilapia is always fantastic at Chinese Cafe. The fish is steamed with a lot of cilantro and shredded ginger and sesame oil. The fish is never muddy flavored and always perfectly textured. It costs under $8 for a whole fish!
This summer, the Harris County Courthouse Cafeteria served a baked tilapia. Courthouse cafeterias are usually an awful place for cuisine. Yet the tilapia was outstanding -- no muddy flavor at all.
I had a lemon pepper tilapia special yesterday at King Biscuit. Despite the generous use of spices, the fish tasted dirty, almost like dog food.
I had the same problem tonight at Amazon Grill. The tilapia was crusted in potato and placed on a sweet honey sauce. Yet no amount of fried coating and sugar could take away that dog food flavor. I like the preparation, but the last four times I have ordered this dish, the fish itself has been awful.
Why does the quality of tilapia vary? I suspect it is due to the quality of the food and water used to raise the fish in fish farms. Tilapia eat a varied diet, from pellets to vegetables to algae and duckweed. The diet affects the flavor. My wife once had a friend whose family raised catfish on a diet of dog food. The fish tasted like dog food. Water quality matters too. If the fish live in stale water with their own wastes, it is going to affect the flavor.
Restaurants need to start thinking more about the quality of farmed fish and less about price. For light-tasting fish such as tilapia and catfish, the quality of aquaculture matters a great deal. If the fish tastes like dog food, no amount of seasoning and frying will fix it.
There is no excuse for serving muddy-flavored tilapia when clean-flavored tilapia is available. So Amazon Grill, take notice: tonight was the last time I ever eat your lousy, dog-food-tasting fish.