When it comes to fish, no species brings out the haters like tilapia.
Read up on it, and you’ll find tilapia described with words like “muddy” and “earthy”; there are entire forum threads devoted to its inferiority. This very newspaper, back in 2007, called it “the fish that chefs love to hate.”
Should we really be so hard on this fast-growing freshwater fish?
In the world of food, there aren’t too many propositions that get universal agreement, but here’s one: Our oceans are overfished. If we’re going to continue to eat fish, and to feed it to the people scheduled to join us on this planet in the coming years, we have to farm it. And if we’re going to farm fish, an adaptable, hardy fish like tilapia is an excellent candidate.
Yet a combination of rumors and credible reports works against it. Perhaps you’ve heard that tilapia are raised in cesspools and live on poop? Even the USDA says there is — or, at least, used to be — some truth in that. The agency’s 2009 report on Chinese imports notes that “Fish are often raised in ponds where they feed on waste from poultry and livestock.”
Before we meet that fact with a chorus of “ewww,” it’s worth noting that turning feces into fish would be the agricultural equivalent of spinning straw into gold. Although there are important safety concerns in that kind of system, if you can manage those risks, you’ve got one of the most sustainable foods going. It’s a downright Rumpelstiltskinnian miracle, and we should root for it, not against it.
The question is whether that still happens. To find out, I went to the source: Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch program, which rates seafood choices based on whether they have been responsibly fished or farmed. Seafood Watch lists tilapia from nine different sources. Four (from Peru, Canada, Ecuador and the United States) are rated “Best Choices,” another four (from China, Taiwan, Mexico and Indonesia) are “Good Alternatives,” and only one (from Colombia) is rated “Avoid.” I asked Ryan Bigelow, the Seafood Watch program’s engagement manager, to give me a rundown on the sustainability issues.
If you’re going to farm fish, tilapia is a great candidate, he told me: “They’re easier to raise than they are to kill.” They tolerate a wide range of temperatures and salinity levels, and they’re very, very hardy. “That’s a double-edged sword,” says Bigelow, because escaped tilapia will easily establish a population that could negatively affect existing species.
The ratings of fisheries are determined by a long list of variables, including style of farming, escape prevention, animal density, disease control, chemical use and transparency. Like any other kind of farming, tilapia aquaculture can be done well, and it can be done poorly. To find the fish that are farmed well, follow the Seafood Watch recommendations.
What about the poop? Seafood Watch scientist Tyler Isaac explains that manure is often used in fish ponds, but not as food. It fertilizes the algae and plankton that the fish eat. Do tilapia sometimes nibble on it? Well, probably. They’ll nibble on your toes if you let them. And Isaac won’t rule out the possibility that animal waste could be used as food, but he says he’s not aware that it’s being done.
Although waste isn’t a standard part of the fish’s diet, Isaac says that using any kind of waste stream for food — including food waste and the effluent from methane digesters, which convert manure to energy — is an environmental win.
Farmed well, tilapia can serve the interest of environmental health. How about human health? Well, it’s not a nutritional powerhouse. A 3.5-ounce serving of tilapia has a scant 0.13 grams of the long-chain omega-3 fats that fish are famous for. Although that puts it on a par with other lean seafood (catfish has 0.09 grams; shrimp, 0.06), it’s a long way from canned tuna (0.88) and sardines (at 0.98), and not even in the same ballpark as the omega-3 powerhouse that is salmon (at 2.36).
Tilapia, in short, is an environmentally friendly, lean, low-calorie source of protein. We need all of those we can get.
But enough about health. Let’s talk about taste.
The taste of a thing has a way of being bound up in its provenance. We all like to believe that food that’s produced responsibly also tastes better, but rigorous (or at least moderately structured) testing of that proposition doesn’t always back it up. It’s common to hear people who care about food assert that, for example, wild salmon tastes better than farmed, or backyard eggs taste better than store-bought, but our blind taste tests here at The Post have not borne either of those out.
It seemed appropriate to test tilapia, so I called John Rorapaugh, director of sustainability at D.C. seafood distributor Profish. Could he help set up a blind tasting of tilapia and a handful of other kinds of mild white fish? Yes, he could. He brought along Profish President Greg Casten and recruited a chef (Scott Drewno, of the Source by Wolfgang Puck) and a fisheries expert (Bryan King, of the District’s Division of Fisheries and Wildlife). Post food critic Tom Sietsema joined us, and I rounded out our panel of six.
When I told the panel I wanted to taste tilapia blind because some people thought it was, well, icky, Drewno confessed to being one of those “some people.” No tilapia at the Source! Well, I was glad to have a doubter in the group.
Meantime, we recruited Jay Garrison, chef at Hank’s Oyster Bar on Capitol Hill, to cook the fish for the tasting. For a trained chef, uniformly cooking six samples of seven different kinds of fish isn’t the most exciting of challenges, but it’s critical to a successful tasting. If some of the samples are over- or undercooked, it slants the playing field. Garrison did a beautiful job; each fish came to the table perfectly pan-fried.
For each of the seven kinds of fish we tasted, we described flavor and texture, guessed the species and rated it for overall deliciousness on a scale of 1 to 5.
Although red snapper was the hands-down favorite, tilapia from Honduras — a fishery now being evaluated by Seafood Watch — came in second. And even the second-choice tilapia, from the United States, turned in a respectable showing.
Here’s how the species ranked, with some of the comments:
Red snapper: 3.8 (sweet, clean, firm)
Tilapia (Honduras): 3.4 (light, flaky, mild)
Rainbow trout: 3.2 (dense, distinct, low moisture)
Branzino: 3.2 (moist, a little mushy, clean)
Tilapia (domestic): 2.9 (dry, mild, slightly mealy)
Fluke: 2.8 (chewy, nondescript, slightly fishy)
Barramundi: 1.9 (musty, moist, strong flavor)
And it turned out we couldn’t pick tilapia out of a lineup. With the exception of the snapper, each fish had at least one of us guessing it was tilapia; the actual tilapias didn’t garner any more correct guesses than the non-tilapias.
It’s important to recognize that another tasting, on another day, with different samples, would yield different results. Two snappers can taste as different as a tilapia and a branzino, which is why none of us should expect to reliably identify a nice white fish, served to us with some butter and lemon. The point here is simply that there’s absolutely no reason to trash tilapia.
Drewno, besides being an accomplished chef and a game panel participant, is an excellent sport. When we got to the big reveal and he learned that his top-ranked fish was tilapia, he laughed. “Are you sure someone back there didn’t make a mistake?” he asked, but confessed that it was a “surprising” exercise.
If you’re among the haters, you might be surprised, too. Give tilapia a chance.