Tilapia, pronounced tuh-LAP-ee-yah, is just about the most farmed fish in the world. It falls behind salmon and catfish in the United States, but only because tilapia is a tropical fish. Yes, it's that kind of tropical fish: Tilapia are cichlids, just like Oscars or the African cichlids you see at the pet store.
Tilapia is becoming more popular because it is relatively cheap, neutral in flavor and is one of the most sustainable fish around. Tilapia are omnivorous, so they eat bugs, plankton, and plants, making then environmentally benign even when intensively raised.
Tilapia are native to Africa, where they were first farmed, possibly by the ancient Egyptians. Today, most are farmed in Latin America, China, Indonesia and in the U.S. southern states. They are wildly invasive where they can survive, but die off when the weather cools the water below 50 degrees.
A typical tilapia is between 1 to 2 pounds. They are almost always sold as skinless fillets. You can find them swimming in Asian restaurants and markets in tanks, because they can tolerate crowding well. You get to choose which fish you want in those cases, and they dispatch it for you on the spot.
A Blank Slate
What does tilapia taste like? Well...not much. It is very lean, very white and very high in protein. And it has almost no flavor of its own. You may even find it boring, particularly if you prefer the taste of a rich, fatty tuna or even an anchovy. Tilapia doesn't "taste like fish," which is why it is so popular in the United States.
As a cook, think of tilapia as a blank slate for whatever recipe you use. Unlike most fish, where simplicity is the rule, with tilapia anything else on the plate is going to be the star, so here's where you highlight that great salsa recipe, or a killer sauce, or perfectly steamed veggies. Tilapia is delicate, so it's best fried, steamed, baked or broiled. Do not eat it raw, and do not grill it.
Tilapia works very well with Asian dishes—try it crispy-fried whole with a blistering hot Sichuan sauce. It's also great in fish tacos.
This fish works very well with practically any fish recipe. Simply find a fillet or whole fish recipe and sub in tilapia for whatever the recipe calls for. Think of it as fish cookery's universal pinch hitter.