August 3, 2006

sweet & sour tilapia fillets

Another easy dish to make with this popular fish. Tilapia is such a mild-flavored and versatile fish. Back in Manila, fresh whole tilapia are sold in most of the local wet markets. It takes just a few minutes to grill whole tilapia.They are delicious wrapped and grilled in banana leaves. Grilling fish wrapped in banana leaves is a very popular cooking technique in the Philippines. Aside from retaining the moisture and flavors of the food, particularly delicate fish, the banana leaves impart a sweet and fresh aroma and enhance the flavors. A favorite dipping sauce for grilled tilapia is a simple fish sauce combined with the local calamansi or calamondin lemon juice. A few whole or chopped chilis may be thrown in for some extra heat. In Asia, banana leaves are traditionally used in cooking, from main dishes to desserts. We usually line pans with banana leaves prior to steaming or baking to prevent food from sticking. We also use them to line serving platters or trays, not only for better food presentation, but for a very practical purpose as well since banana leaves have natural nonstick qualities. The main reason why sticky rice cakes are most often seen served on banana leaves. Binalot means "wrapped" in Tagalog and the name of a fast food chain business in Manila which successfully made use of the traditional banana leaf idea to wrap rice combo dishes for carry outs. Biodegradable and environment-friendly, these leaves are indispensable in our daily food preparations.
Back to the tilapia, here in the US, I was initially surprised to find tilapia, sold fresh or frozen, at the fish sections of local grocery stores, labeled with the same name as we call it in Manila. I later found out that it's a fish native to Africa. It's now ranked 6th most popular fish in the US. I usually buy these individually-wrapped frozen fillets these days. It keeps very well in the freezer and very easy to thaw out the pieces, depending upon the number or amount needed. I've tried making Tilapia Piccata as well as just simply pan-fried served with a dip. For this dish, the fish is first dredged in a little flour before pan-frying in olive or vegetable oil. The fillets were then set aside while making the sweet and sour sauce. Another option is to make a tempura-like batter with a very thin consistency, into which the tilapia fillets may be dipped before deep frying. I chose the healthier option, using as little flour and oil as possible. Sweet chili sauce, water and vinegar were combined for the right sweet & sour balance of flavors. Vegetables like red and green bell pepper strips and carrot slices may be blanched to retain their crispness and bright colors. Drain the blanched veggies well and arrange on a serving platter. Place the pan-fried fish fillets over the veggies. Pour over the simmering sweet and sour sauce just before serving. Garnish with sliced green onions or chopped cilantro.


  1. You're right! Tilapia is now very popular not only here in the Phils. but in the US as well. I watched Iron Chef America one time & the secret ingredient is tilapia. I was amazed that the chefs were able to create different dishes from it. Once we ate in a Thai restaurant & the tilapia dish we ordered was very good. Fillet & deep fried with coconut sauce. Very delicious.

  2. I agree! I also enjoyed watching that Iron Chef episode you mentioned. I once cooked steamed tilapia in coconut milk, but the deep fried tilapia you tried at the Thai place must really be good. Thanks for the idea!