Species Profile: Tilapia

It’s the middle of winter here in Indiana, making hunting and gathering difficult.  So to kick off a week of tilapia,  this is one of my favorite traditional Zambian dishes from my time in the Peace Corps and more recently for my PhD research.  It’s salty and delicious, but not typically how Americans cook fish.

Pan Fried Tilapia, Traditional Zambian Style

Tilapias are a diverse group of African cichlids.  In the last 60 years, many of these species have been moved around the world for stocking, mosquito and aquatic weed control, and aquaculture.  The most common tilapia on menus and ice at the grocer is Nile tilapia, Oreochromis niloticus. Increasingly common at meal time, under many circumstances tilapias are considered highly invasive.  Native only to Africa, it’s actually very likely that the tilapia Americans consume are farmed in Central America, or China.

Tillapia fillets farmed in Honduras
Tilapia at the local grocery. Photo credit A. Deines

Indeed, the global market for tilapia is booming.  It shouldn’t be surprising then that tilapias have escaped these farms and established feral populations in many countries far outside of their native ranges.

The global tilapia market has also caused Nile tilapia to be translocated within Africa, to regions where it is not native, but where related species do occur naturally.  For example, the Three-spot tilapia, Oreochromis andersonii, the focus of my PhD research, which I blatantly plug:


While I had to go to Zambia to collect tilapia,  you can get tilapia at the grocery store, though the economics of this actually promotes tilapia invasion.  As an invasivore it’s much better to catch it yourself if you live in some of the many locations where it’s known to have feral populations.  For instance, the Mozambique tilapia is essentially the only fish surviving in California’s Salton Sea.  Tomorrow we’ll be rolling-out an interactive map to help invasivores find their query.

Tilapia can be caught with a fishing pole using worms but I’ve also had success with spinners.  Cast-nets can be effective in areas where tilapias build nests, which are easy to spot.  A tilapia nest looks like a mud volcano or caldera sometimes up to meter across.  In Zambia, the most effective (but illegal) method of harvest is known as “kutumpula”, where fishermen beat the water to scare the fish into gillnets.  Be sure to check into and abide by local fishery rules when you harvest.

Recipe: Traditional Zambian Pan Fried Tilapia


Frying small tilapia in Zambia
Frying small tilapia in Zambia. Photo Credit A. Deines

1 whole tilapia, about 100-300g (~1/2lbs)

1 cup vegetable oil

1 cup corn flour

1tb salt

1 tomato

1 onion


After gutting and scaling the tilapia, make two or three shallow cuts into the flanks of the fish running diagonally down from the base of the dorsal fin towards the belly of the fish (see picture for example).  Sprinkle some salt into the cuts, and then lightly coat the tilapia in corn flour.  Heat about ½ cm of oil in a frying pan at medium heat until it crackles when a small amount of water is dripped in.

Carefully place the fish into the oil.  Fry for up to 10 minutes on the first side, carefully watching the heat, so as not to burn.  Yes, this seems a very long time to fry a fish, until the outer layer of flesh is brown and crispy.  While the fish is frying on the first side, dice the onion and tomato.  Soon after turning the fish, slide the tomato and onion into the oil, alongside the fish and continue frying.  Remove the fish from the oil when it is brown and crispy on the second side.

Continue to cook the tomato “soup” and add about ½ tbs salt.  Stirring often with a wooden spoon, cook another 5 minutes, homogenizing the soup by gentle mashing.  Pour the soup over the fish, and serve.  Nshima and “rape”-the leaves of the  canola oil plant, Brassica, also invasive in the US-  make excellent accompaniments.   Though in Zambian culture, it’s always the fish and vegetables that accompany the staple Nshima.

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