Sustainable and mayo-free: Tilapia Fish Tacos

by Terry B on June 22, 2011

Chunks of pan seared tilapia fillets seasoned with chili powder, cumin, cayenne pepper and lime juice are topped with cilantro, tomatoes and green onions for a healthy, flavorful meal. Recipe below.

I like fish. I like tacos. So why has the charm of fish tacos always eluded me? Maybe it’s the fact that mayonnaise is used in so many recipes. I do use mayo on occasion (and appreciate its creamy tanginess every time I do), but putting it on fish tacos sounds like tuna salad in a tortilla to me. Some recipes even call for chopped cabbage—tuna salad and coleslaw in a tortilla.

Recently, though, two mayonnaise-free events had me reconsidering fish tacos. The first was in New York. After catching a performance of Rajiv Joseph’s amazing play, Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo, we made a mad dash for the subway, practically knocking several slow-moving Times Square tourists into the street, trying to get to Luke’s Lobster in the East Village before it closed. We were rewarded with tender chunks of chilled lobster on buttered, toasted buns with just a sprinkle of lemon butter and a dash of secret spices—and no mayo. (They do offer a “swipe of mayo” if you want it, but we didn’t—we just wanted lobster, plain and simple.)

The second event, closer to home and more to the point, was dinner at El Cid, a Mexican restaurant in our Logan Square neighborhood here in Chicago. Marion ordered the fish tacos. Again, no mayonnaise—just simply, plainly cooked chunks of fresh fish topped with onion cilantro salsa and accompanied by lime wedges. It was time to try my own take on fish tacos.

Tilapia, fish farming and sustainability. In a recent post on sustainable wild caught walleye, I reported that Paul Greenberg, author of Four Fish: The Future of the Last Wild Food, said that fish farming or aquaculture will overtake wild catch in the next few years. As much as this is necessary—we are simply running out of wild fish—aquaculture is not without its considerable challenges. Concerns about threats to the environment, protecting species diversity and wild populations and producing healthy fish have all been raised. But as we rely more and more on farmed fish, solving these problems and getting aquaculture right is something we must do.

Fortunately, the world’s largest producer of farmed tilapia is getting it right on many levels. In fact, Regal Springs Tilapia is the first aquafarm in the world to meet the International Standards for Responsible Tilapia Aquaculture (ISRTA), a rigorous set of standards that ranks fish farms on seven principles of environmental and social impact. Working with the World Wildlife Fund, fish farm industry leaders created the ISRTA’s high standards. The World Wildlife Fund published the set of standards in 2009; you can find a downloadable version here.

Tilapia are freshwater fish, native to North Africa and introduced throughout much of Asia, Central and South America and the United States. The Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch says, “Tilapia is a good candidate for farming, as it provides more protein than it takes to raise it. This is in contrast to some other fish raised in farms, such as salmon or tuna.” Still, farming practices vary wildly. In worst case scenarios, fish cages so crowd production lakes that you can literally walk across them. According to FishChoice.com, a business-to-business online seafood sourcing tool that lists seafood products that meet the sustainability criteria, in China, tilapia is almost always grown in earthen ponds a few feet deep. China is a major supplier of tilapia to North America; this would explain the unfortunate muddy taste of some of the tilapia we’ve encountered in supermarkets.

This was not the kind of operation Swiss entrepreneur Rudi Lamprecht had in mind when he started Regal Springs in 1988. Headquartered in Florida and with aquafarms in Indonesia, Honduras and Mexico, Regal Springs has built its business based on environmentally and socially responsible practices. In contrast to wall-to-wall cages, Lamprecht’s farms use less than one percent of the water surface their lakes would support. 100% of their fish processing waste is recycled into fishmeal and fish oil; some of it becomes biodiesel fuel that powers their trucks and machinery and supplies the farms’ electricity. And the company has developed advanced refrigeration systems that allow them to transport much of their fish by ship rather than air, greatly reducing their carbon footprint.

Regal Springs is just as dedicated to creating a positive social impact with their farms. Besides providing more than 5,000 jobs and indirect income for another 20,000 people, they make major investments in housing, education, health care and infrastructure in the communities. And alarmed by the rapid deforestation going on around them, they started a Fish for Trees program to transition people away from deforestation and toward fish farming. They supply communities with materials to create their own fish farms.

In the process, Regal Springs has turned a commodity fish into a premium product. While they don’t sell tilapia to the consumer market under their own name, it is sought after by food service companies and restaurants alike. The most reliable source for home cooks is in the freezer case at Costco. Their Kirkland private label brand is Regal Springs tilapia from Honduras. That’s where I found the fillets for these tacos. They were amazing. At one point, I practically touched my nose to the thawed fillets and smelled no fishiness or muddiness at all. And the taste was clean, delicate and mild.

Pan Seared Tilapia Fish Tacos
Makes 4 tacos (can be doubled)

1/2 teaspoon chili powder
1/2 teaspoon cumin
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
olive oil
2 limes
2 6-ounce tilapia fillets (or other mild white fish—see Kitchen Notes)
salt and freshly ground black pepper
4 6-inch flour tortillas

For toppings:
I used chopped fresh tomatoes, thinly sliced green onions and roughly chopped cilantro to top them and served lime wedges on the side. In addition, you can use diced avocado, your favorite salsa, chopped jalapeños, chopped onions or other taco toppings you like. Don’t go crazy, though—you don’t want to lose the taste of the fish.

Prepare the fish. Mix the chili powder, cumin, cayenne pepper, 1 tablespoon olive oil and the juice of 1 lime in a small bowl. Arrange the fish fillets in a glass baking dish or on a nonreactive platter (no metal). Brush fillets on both sides with spice mixture and season with salt and pepper. Let marinate at room temperature for 15 to 30 minutes.

Heat a large nonstick skillet over a medium flame. Add enough olive oil to coat the bottom and sauté the fillets until browned and cooked through, about 4 minutes per side. Transfer to a plate and break into bite-sized chunks with a fork.

Warm the tortillas. Heat a large dry skillet over medium-high flame and slightly brown the tortillas one at a time, about 30 seconds per side. You can also nuke them in the microwave (they won’t brown, but they’ll be nice and pliable) or if you want to live authentically and dangerously, you can lay them directly over a gas burner, browning them briefly and carefully on both sides.

Assemble the tacos. Divide fish among four tortillas and add your favorite toppings. Cut the second lime in wedges and serve with the tacos.

Kitchen Notes

Go fish. If you can’t find tilapia, you can substitute any mild, firm-fleshed white fish. Cod, flounder or red snapper would all be good choices.

Looking for more ways to cook tilapia? Try this healthy, flavorful recipe for Chinese-style Steamed Fish.

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{ 28 comments… read them below or add one }

Cynthia Fox-Giddens June 22, 2011 at 9:16 pm

Tilapia is my fave fish and I like this recipe for fish tacos, Yum!

The Rowdy Chowgirl June 23, 2011 at 12:09 am

You had me at “mayo free”! The tacos look great, and I really appreciate the information about farmed tilapia.

May - So Very Domestic June 23, 2011 at 12:53 am

I came for the recipe, I stayed for the education on farmed tilapia. Regal Springs seems like a really stand up company! Great, great post!

Ronnie Ann June 23, 2011 at 2:27 am

What a great article, Terry. Almost a two-fer. Those yummy fish tacos (sans) mayo are just my style. And the info about tilapia sources – as well as what to avoid – is as tasty as the recipe. Thank you!

Terry B June 23, 2011 at 4:17 am

Thanks, Cynthia!

Thanks, Rowdy. You know, as our oceans become more stressed and overfished, we’re simply going to have to figure out how to do fish farming better.

May, they really are. Besides the environmental and social issues I discussed, in each of the three countries they’re farming in, they also had to figure out how to work with communities and individuals based on their cultures. This was particularly challenging in Indonesia, where they started their company.

Thanks, Ronnie Ann! I think the more people pay attention to such things, the more companies will strive to meet their expectations. In this case, for example, I really am impressed that a number of tilapia producers took it upon themselves to work with the World Wildlife Fund to set standards stringent enough that the WWF would put their name on them.

Christina June 23, 2011 at 1:46 pm

I love fish tacos! I love how you kept yours simple. I love adding fresh toppings, tomato, avocado, cilantro. Such a satisfying, healthy meal!

Melody June 23, 2011 at 2:24 pm

Terry,
You are spot on as usual… mayo and batter should be reserved for fish sticks. Thanks for the great recipe.
Melody

Gwen~healthymamma June 28, 2011 at 5:12 pm

You have no idea how excited I am to have found this article. I went to Regal Springs site and can’t wait to share the info w all of my Tilapia loving friends. I was so sad to have to give up Tilapia a year or so ago when I heard about poor farming techniques and that contrary to popular belief, tilapia was in fact not good for your health at all, more cholesterol than beef and full of impurities.

Thanks for this info and on were to find Regal Springs Tilapia! Can’t wait to start eating tilapia again!

Tomato July 18, 2011 at 7:08 am

Can’t wait to make this. It looks so great! thanks ;)

Josh R. August 31, 2011 at 4:32 am

Not sure what I did to mess this up but man was this bad. I didn’t even finish the fish. I like tilapia and I like this style of fish taco but I must have messed something up. Oh well, another day.

Terry B August 31, 2011 at 2:57 pm

Thanks, everyone!

Josh—I’m so sorry to hear this! I’ve certainly had those days, where maybe I’ve misread an ingredient or left out a crucial step. Hope your bad experience doesn’t put you off fish tacos (or Blue Kitchen!).

Josh R. August 31, 2011 at 5:14 pm

I swear it won’t put me off anything ;)

Renee September 2, 2011 at 1:47 am

Just made these. Delicious!

Terry B September 2, 2011 at 2:57 pm

Good to know, Josh. And thanks, Renee!

Mexican Food October 19, 2011 at 10:02 am

I don’t know this type of fish at all, but I definitely want to try this with fish that is sold locally to me!

Iris February 19, 2012 at 11:53 pm

FYI: Although I’m not a lover of mayo myself, using a mayo type sauce, usually avocado/mayo combo, and also the inclusion of shredded cabbage in fish tacos, is the traditional and authentic way they are done in Mexico! Different types of taco fillings call for different types of accompaniments. Also, tacos are traditionally made with corn, not flour, tortillas. Avocado would also be traditional with fish tacos too. But I’ll try your mayo free tacos tonight…with corn toritlllas, of course!

Caroline April 6, 2012 at 9:07 pm

I Love tilapia. Hint:thaw frozen tilapia in three tablespons of milk. You will see the difference .

Chris May 10, 2012 at 2:11 am

What are they feeding the Tilapia or other farmed fish? Feeding corn to our fish is as bad as eating it ourselves. It does nothing but make us fat.

Terry B May 10, 2012 at 3:30 am

Chris, I don’t often respond to comments on older posts, but you raised an interesting question. Tilapia are naturally omnivores, but Regal Springs tilapia are fed a mainly herbivore diet, which makes them very lean. The nutrition facts speak for themselves—a single fillet has just 2.5 grams of fat, but delivers 23 grams of protein.

Chris May 11, 2012 at 1:20 am

Thanks for the response, that’s good to know… I’ll look into it.
Ate this last night for dinner. It was good!

Stephanie July 3, 2012 at 5:30 am

This is a great informative post and I completely agree with your mayo statement. Do you think this would go well with a mango salsa… I want to cook this for my dad’s birthday and I want it to be perfect (I don’t want to put the salsa if it’s going to be gross). Thanks in advance!

Sharon August 10, 2012 at 9:32 pm

This recipe is fantastic. My family loves it. I love that it is easy to make and delicious.

Layne C August 30, 2012 at 1:51 pm

I made the taco’s a couple of nights ago. I think this is the best dish I have ever made. Thanks for sharing the recipe.

Vicki December 27, 2012 at 5:44 pm

I’d like to make a tilapia taco filling for a New Year’s mexican buffet, but I would need to make the filling at least one day ahead.

Do you think that this or any other way of cooking tilapia for tacos will work for making ahead and reheating?

Terry B December 27, 2012 at 8:44 pm

Vicki, I wouldn’t cook fish a day ahead. My experience with trying to reheat fish the next day has never worked out—it always tastes less than fresh. But the tilapia cooks up very quickly. Maybe you could move the party into the kitchen and have friend help chop the toppings as you cook the fish.

Yasmin December 29, 2013 at 10:38 am

Orange roughy,though delicious, should not be used. It is a fish that is being decimated by our consummation. You can read more here: http://www.sustainableseafood.org.au/default2.asp?active_page_id=358

Terry B December 29, 2013 at 11:16 am

Thanks for the heads up, Yasmin. I see that the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch has also added orange roughy to its “avoid” list. I’ve updated the post, removing it.

Barbara Fazio March 26, 2014 at 10:56 am

Well, we tried your very simple, tasty tilapia tacos last night, only subbing in corn tacos for the flour tortillas. I never cared for tilapia before but followed your advice to use the tilapia from Cosco. What a difference. No fishy nor earthy smell, just fresh. Fussy husband is now a fan! Thank you.

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