Fish Guilt

Last weekend, I had a conversation with a friend about the longevity of the food supply coming from the oceans. Somewhat embarrassingly, we had this conversation over a giant platter of sashimi, but the the facts are in, and the oceans are running extremely low on fish.

One (potential) solution is fish farming. For a long time I avoided farmed fish at all costs, citing the unnaturalness of their diets or the waste issues farms create, but the time has come to get off my high horse if I want to continue to enjoy fish regularly. 

Farmed fish should be chosen thoughtfully, and tilapia is one of the most sustainably farmed fish in existence (provided it does not come from China or Taiwan – read more about that here). In addition, its mild flavor makes it the ideal candidate for many unique dishes, like my Malaysian-Style Tilapia with Tamarind Sauce.

The sauce for this tilapia is delightfully sour thanks to the tamarind, and the brown sugar and fish sauce balance it perfectly. Put on a pot of brown rice before you start the fish and trim some green beans to be steamed at the last minute and everything will be done at just the right time.

Malaysian-Style Tilapia with Tamarind Sauce

Malaysian-Style Tilapia:

4 tilapia filets (about 1.25 #)


flour for dusting fish (I used rice flour)

3 T. coconut oil

1 medium onion, thinly sliced

1 stalk of lemongrass, tender inner stalk only*, finely minced

2 large garlic cloves, minced

1 or 2 thai chilies (sometimes called bird or bird’s eye), fresh or dried, minced (optional). 

1 Tbsp. tamarind paste

1 Tbsp. honey

1 Tbsp. water

2 tsp. fish sauce

1 C. diced tomato, with liquid (fresh or from a can or box)

6 Tbsp. coconut milk (shake the can vigorously before opening for best result)

Heat a wide saute pan over medium high heat. Sprinkle the fish filets on both sides lightly with salt. Dust the filets with flour and shake off any excess.

Add about 2 T. of oil to the hot pan and give it about 30 seconds to get hot. Lightly brown the tilapia on both sides, 2 filets at a time, about one minute per side. You do not need to cook the fish all the way through. Set aside.

Reduce the heat to medium and add another Tbsp. of oil to the pan.  Saute the onion for about 5 minutes until starting to brown lightly.  Add the garlic, lemongrass, and chilies if using and saute about two minutes more until fragrant.  Add the tomato and stir to combine the ingredients.

While the mixture comes to a simmer, combine the tamarind, honey, water and fish sauce in a small bowl.  Mix thoroughly to dissolve the sugar and then add the mixture to the pan, again stirring to combine.  Simmer this mixture for about 5 minutes, stirring occasionally.

Stir in the 6 Tbsp. of coconut milk, reserving the rest for another use (it’s great in coffee or tea!).  Stir to combine.

Once the mixture is simmering again, slide the tilapia filets down into the sauce and cook for 5 minutes to finish, spooning some of the warm sauce over the filets as they simmer.

*Notes on lemongrass:  If you’ve never used fresh lemongrass before, prepare to be disappointed at just how little of the lemongrass you will using. First, trim the bottom inch off of the stalk (the bottom is the fat end).  After the bottom is trimmed, you want about the next four inches above it to work with (discard the thin, dry top).

Now take this 4” piece and cut it lengthwise (carefully) to reveal its inner workings.  This will give you the best sense of what part of the lemongrass is tender. Just how much is tender varies from stalk to stalk. Peel away the outer 2 or 3 layers of the stalk (much like a leek) to get the the tender center.  Mince up whatever is soft, and remember, if your knife won’t go through it easily, neither will your teeth.

Also, there are other recipes in which you can use some of the more fibrous parts of the lemongrass, but those tend to be very long-cooking dishes where the lemongrass would have time to soften and become palatable. This recipe is just too quick for that!

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