Extensively produced around the world, tilapia is considered to be one of the most sustainable of farmed fish, and is usually available at Billingsgate Market, come rain or shine, says CJ Jackson.
Surprisingly around 50% of all the seafood we eat comes from a farmed source: salmon, trout, warm water prawns, turbot, halibut, sea bass and sea bream and a number of other species are produced here and imported from many countries. Aquaculture of seafood reduces pressure on wild stocks to some extent, and also creates a necessary source of protein for a growing global population. But it is important that the production is environmentally sound.
Second only to carp in its production through aquaculture, tilapia is produced extensively around the globe including the UK. It is an important source of protein for some developing countries. Like carp and trout, it is a freshwater species, but it is very adaptable and some come from brackish waters. In some areas around the globe, tilapia have been introduced into local rivers and have become a problem as they are very invasive.
Tilapia is caught from the wild, but mostly it’s the farmed product that we see sold at Billingsgate. It ticks a lot of boxes for sustainability and is widely considered to be one of the most environmentally friendly of all farmed fish. It can be grown in a closed tank system where there is little waste and therefore little or no damage to the environment. It is omnivorous and happy to eat only vegetation, so puts less pressure on wild stocks of other seafood. It grows relatively quickly and is resistant to disease, making it a good and cost-effective choice. And it can be produced in many countries, so the carbon footprint can be minimal.
Tilapia comes in many varieties: the name is applied to more than 100 species of this fish from the Chichlidae group. It can be red or black (sometimes mottled) and is sometimes also called St Peters fish or Pomegranate fish. Sold filleted, skinned in a choice of fresh, frozen and dried at Billingsgate market, its popular with some ethnic groups. In some parts of the world the skin is cured and used for leatherwork!
It is a good choice for chefs and home cooks as once harvested it stores well, staying fresh and in rigor mortis for a good period of time. Once filleted and skinned, it produces firm, meaty, white fillets that are fantastic cooked in a number of ways: pan-fried, steamed, deep-fried (fabulous in fish and chips!), grilled, roasted and cooked en papilotte. It is also perfect for a low fat diet, and when prepared carefully it can also be bone free.
As a freshwater species the flavour tends to be slightly earthy, so it suits robust flavours particularly well. Birds-eye chilli, garlic, citrus, olive oil and many Oriental flavor combinations, such as ginger, soy, sesame and coriander, are excellent companions.
CJ Jackson is CEO of Billingsgate Seafood Training School and an award-winning food writer.