Thursday, September 27, 2007

Tilapia: The Good, The Bad, The Ugly

"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.

15 comments:

Anonymous said...

and, that is why i don't bother with tilapia. i'm not willing to get 50-50 or worse odds on taste

Daniel said...

I don't order tilapia out much for the reasons AE notes, but the $7.99/lb tilapia at Whole Foods or Central Market cannot be beaten, IMO. It's flaky, light, and fragrant.

Anonymous said...

The show Dirty Jobs had him netting tilapia in a waste water treatment facility. The tilapia actually clean the water by eating the poo....

Those are your farmed raised fish.

Anonymous said...

FYI, if you haven't had the cheeseburger at Amazon Grill, you should. Darn good.

Anonymous said...

I wish I had had a 50% chance of having good tilapia, but I've never had any that wasn't bad. I won't eat catfish either anymore. Several years ago, farmed fish and farmed crawfish used to taste fine, but nowadays it's all got an off taste, perhaps it's because our whole food chain has been degraded over the years.

Anonymous said...

Just to make a correction, the show Dirty Jobs showed him at a fish raising farm, nettin tilapia to put them in the water that the bass had just been in. Tipapia eat the bass poo, NOT human poo and it was NOT a waste water treament facility! However, it is still unappetizing to know you are eating fish that eat any kind of poo.

Anonymous said...

Interesting that you compare the taste to dog food. So you eat dog food? Is it a food fetish for you? Why not try eating people food ?

anonymouseater said...

Regarding that last comment, I should clarify that I don't know whether the taste of some farmed tilapia resembles dog food. More accurately, it is the flavor that can resemble dog food. The two components of flavor are the senses of taste and smell. Although I have never eaten dog food, I smell it every day when I feed my dog. I don't like the smell of dog food. For that reason, I don't like the flavor of some farm-raised tilapia because it reminds me of the smell of dog food.

Why can't restaurants serve tilapia of the same quality?

anonymouseater said...

The second paragraph of my last comment makes no sense. I meant to say:

Like daniel, I always get good quality tilapia at Central Market and Whole Foods. Why can't restaurants serve tilapia of the same quality:

Anonymous said...

If you have a wegmans near you, they have great Tilapia, I got hooked on it when me and a friend started getting together on Friday nights, drinking beer and eventually, we would end the night by grilling some Tilapia.

I buy the farm raised vaccum sealed bags at wegmans that have 11 tilapia fillets in them for 8 dollars. That's not bad at all. Now almost every night I prepare a fillet before I go to bed.

Try it!

Anonymous said...

Even if "farmed" tilapia are used, they need to be 'purged' in clean water for about 3 to 5 days (not eat anything) before sending / selling to the marketplace. Also a tip in filleting any fish with a thick blood line along the backbone. Cut OUT the bloodline. It will reduce the dirty taste as well.

Bill

Cipher said...

Apparently the muddy flavor comes from the algae that the fish eat, this blog entry says that soaking the fish for an hour in buttermilk has good results in making the fish taste better:

http://texasgourmetblog.com/muddy-flavors-in-fish/

www.cuenca-3d.com said...

It's all erroneous the thing you are saying.

Christi Joostema said...

Chickens eat poo too and they don't taste bad, eh??

sammy kennedy said...

Where can i find local farm raised tilapia?