When I was a kid in Zolfo Springs, my brother and I would ride our bikes to Pioneer Park and castnet Nile perch in Rock Lake. We’d let the big ones go and keep the little ones to us as bait in the Peace River for snook and gar. We learned this from our dad, who used to take us to Rock Bend in Brownsville, just south of Zolfo on U.S. 17. Our Aunt Mildred owns the land where the river bends with a rocky ledge on the south side and a big white sandy beach on the north side.
It wasn’t until I became a chef that I heard of a fish called a tilapia. For years, I only saw the fillets. When I saw the whole fish I said, “That’s a Nile perch where I come from, and we don’t eat them — we use them for bait to catch something good to eat.”
During the 1960s, the Florida Game and Freshwater Fish Commission (now the FWC) introduced two species of tilapia into many Florida lakes and streams to try to help fight the spread of aquatic weeds. (It didn’t work, by the way.) For some reason, locals started calling them Nile perch.
Now, there is a fish called a Nile perch — but it’s a totally different species. They look more like a snook to me (good eye; they’re related to snook and barramundi — Ed.) and can get to over 100 pounds.
Tilapia is a common name for several different mid-size species of omnivorous cichlids. Like the true Nile perch they are from Africa and the Middle East, and were said to be a famed food of the pharaohs.
The meat of tilapia is a good source of protein: 3.5 ounces of tilapia can yield up to 26 grams. However, you should be aware of where your food comes from. Cheap farmed tilapia are cheap because it costs next to nothing to raise them. On Chinese farms, their ponds are often below chicken cages. The chickens are fed soy and then what they produce feeds the fish. Appetizing.
If you’re looking for Omega-3 fats, this isn’t the fish for you. It naturally has low amounts of fat. Farm-raised tilapia contains even less Omega-3 fat because of the feed they are given, which in American-raised fish is usually corn- and soy-based. So stick to salmon, mackerel, bluefish and mullet if you want a boost of Omega-3 fats.
I’m not a fan of farmed tilapia, especially from overseas. But I will eat a wild tilapia or a Mayan cichlid. If I had to pick between the two, I’d prefer the Mayan for flavor — but tilapia get much larger and yield more meat.
Now what to do to this fish once I have it in my kitchen? It is mild in flavor, but it’s a freshwater fish and will have a different flavor if you’re used to eating saltwater fish. Some will call it a muddy taste.
After some research and development, I discovered a good way to mask the freshwater flavor that some might not like: A delicious sauce. Tarragon is an herb that has a flavor similar to licorice, and in a tomato-based sauce it will do wonders for tilapia.
Chef Tim Spain is a Florida native and has years of experience cooking professionally, both in restaurants and in private settings. He offers private catering and personal culinary classes. For more info, visit ChefTimSpain.com or call 406-580-1994.
Tarragon Tilapia Sauce
Juice from 18-oz can of tomatoes
1 large sprig tarragon
1/4 tsp honey
2 oz heavy cream
In a large sauce pan, combine all ingredients and bring to a simmer for 10 minutes. Remove from flame and let steep for 10 minutes, then serve over your tilapia cooked anyway you want.
— Recipe by Chef Tim Spain