Whole baked tilapia with flat-leaf parsley and garlic

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Saga update:

Visits to my house by British Gas this week:  3

Hours spent at my house by British Gas this week:  +/- 7

Futile phonecalls to Landlord this week: 3

Number of tops I'm wearing as I type this:  4

Pairs of socks I'm wearing as I type this: 2

Number of working boilers in my house at the moment:  0

Number of warm hands and feet:  0

Number of happy thoughts:  0

Last night I joked about it, tonight I did it: I ran the new washing machine on its hottest cycle and leant up against it for warmth. And that's all I want to say about that.

For many people, whole fish represents some sort of culinary final frontier.  Some people refuse to buy or order it "because of the eyes" (!).  Others find it hard to take home a meal that resembles almost exactly the beast it used to be in life.  And yet others are just plain nervous about how they are going to cook it.   Happily, I don't fall into any of these categories and recently I find that we've been buying whole fish more often.  You get more fish for your money, which appeals to Nick ;-)  One way of treating them is to fillet them (not that hard but takes practice so as not to waste too much meat), but I prefer to cook them whole:  skin, eyes and all! Cooking a whole fish is so childishly simple and yet bringing it to the table always elicits compliments.  Guests seem to think you've done something truly amazing by cooking a whole beastie from the deep!

Tilapia is not really a fish I grew up with.  In South Africa in the 1970s when I was a kid, fresh fish was either hake (if you weren't particularly wealthy); snoek (if you lived in Cape Town); or kingklip or sole (of you were wealthy).  Tuna was something you got in a tin, as were pilchards.  And although my horizons did broaden beyond the fish of my childhood, I don't think I tried tilapia until I came to London.  So although the rest of the world might have been munching away on them for decades, tilapia are still a novelty to me. 

Tilapia form part of the cichlid family of fish, grow to about 10-30cm in length, and are prized for their firm, sweet flesh.  Here are some things that I'll bet you didn't know about them:

  • they can live both in fresh and brackish water;

  • the name tilapia is a Latinisation of thiape, the Tswana word for fish;

  • they are ideally suited to aquaculture because of their adaptability, but the water temperature where they live has to be heated to tropical temperatures.  One way that this is done is by uising waste heat from power stations and factories;

  • unusually, adult tilapias care for their young, sometimes by gathering them in the parent's mouth for safekeeping (called mouth brooding); and

  • tilapia were introduced in Kenya to control the mosquito population, as they consume mosquito larvae.

I was particularly pleased to read the bit about aquaculture, as this means that tilapia are sustainable and I can enjoy them more often – hurrah!

This recipe is incredibly simple and relies mainly on the tilapia's sweet flesh and the classic combination of garlic, parsley and lemon. Flat leaf or Italian parsley is thought by some to have a better flavour than its curly cousin – and this is borne out by chemical analysis, which has shown that it contains a higher concentration of essential oil.  It is also able to withstand heat better and retain its flavour – so it's perfect for this dish.  I served mine with celeriac remoulade but the choice is yours:  roasted geen beans; roasted cherry tomatoes; sweet potato fries – or whatever takes your fancy.

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2 whole tilapia, cleaned
1 medium onion, thinly sliced
2 cloves of garlic, crushed
30g butter, softened
a large handful of flat-leaf parsley (stalks and all)
1 Tbsp lemon juice
salt and pepper


Pre-heat the oven to 200C.  Prepare two squares of aluminium foil large enough to completely weap each fish and spray with a little olive oil on the shiny side.

Mix together the softened butter, garlic and lemon juice.

Rinse and pat the fish dry, including inside the body cavity.  Lay each fish in the centre of its piece of aluminium foil, on the shiny side. 

Season with salt and pepper inside the body cavity, then spread half the butter inside each fish.  Lay the onions on top of the butter inside each fish's body cavity and top the onions with a flat-leaf parsley.  Make 2 slashes in the skin on the top surface of each fish.

Sprinkle the skin of the fish with salt and wrap each fish in its foil parcel.  Place on a baking sheet in the pre-heated oven for 20-30 minutes or until the fish is just cooked.  Carefully open each parcel (be careful not to lose the juices!) and place under the grill for a further 5 minutes to brown a little before serving.

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  1. says

    Oh this is so not funny, I am so sorry that your problem with the broiler still going on! I wish you luck, Jeanne. Stay warm, even if this mean lean up against your warm washing machine.
    My husband and my son, will not touch this fish. My husband will only eat salmon and snoek, and my son will only eat salmon. They love salmon so much, that they don’t mind if I cook it everyday. I, on the other hand will eat any kind of fish. I just love fish and grew up with many different kind of fish. In Indonesia, we marinate it for a few minutes with garlic, turmeric, ground (not powder) coriander seeds, then grill it over the charcoal. Serve with “Sambal Kecap Manis” (shallots, fresh Thai chilies, sweet soy sauce, and limes) Delicious!

  2. says

    Oh, to be like a Tilapia and live next to a power plant, huh? Some humor there to warm you up :)
    I grew up eating whole fish too, especially Tilapia. I love the flesh, especially when it’s fried, but my problem is the flesh around the stomach area tastes funky. I don’t even wanna think about it so I just eat around that.

  3. says

    You’re brave to type this story with stone-cold fingers! If you’re cold you’re allowed to do anything to get warm!
    My first whole fish was served to me in Israel on the banks of the lake of Galilea. I was shocked, horrified and didn’t eat anything of it! But hey I was a child then. I don’t get bothered by it now anymore, I just wouldn’t dare to serve it whole to my children, they would run…

  4. says

    You make it sound so simple – I’m going to have to start cooking fish like this. I don’t have a problem with the eyes – it’s the bones all over the place that put me off cooking whole fish myself, that and the fact we don’t have a fresh fish supplier anywhere near. My girls love line fish in butter sauce whenever we go out for a meal, my son just likes kingklip nuggets.
    Fingers crossed for your boiler – hope you’ve got lots of hot water bottles.

  5. says

    Don’t dream about sunny SA, we are having winter all over again….wind, storm,rain and cold nights, so I am with you….
    I am the only one in the family who are not put off by “the eyes”. I love the “more fish for your money too”. I have just been to the shop and chicken are now R5/kg..no longer a cheap meal!

  6. says

    I do not know what happened to my comments earlier. I just wanted to say that I posted my recipe for Worldwide blogger Bake-off and copied your ideas on this cause.If you mind, I will take it off immediately!

  7. says

    this is the kind of situation where i’m glad we have a working fireplace. and a spare electric radiator in the garage which i can pull out at any given moment. would you like me to bring that along on sat (the radiator, i mean)? ūüėČ

  8. says

    I love the image of you having to warm up next to the washing machine (…though I now feel bad for laughing at your expense). I really hope that it all gets fixed soon and you can warm up!
    I’ve never eaten this fish and have to admit (with much shame) that I’m a bit rubbish at cooking live fish. You guess correctly, it is all to do with those beady eyes looking at me! I really must grow up and give it a go soon…

  9. says

    Wy wife (a medical doctor) loves tilapia and she encourages me to eat fish often.
    But, lately we have had difficulty finding tilapia that is NOT imported from china.
    Dr. E does not permit any food imported from china into our home.
    Do you or your readers have suggestions for sources where tilapia can be purchased that is not imported from chinese fish farms?

  10. says

    I need to commend you on beautiful picture of whole fish; head and tail included. So many people are grossed out by the fact that fish have heads or when we present cooked fish with its head intact!
    Btw, that’s one fresh looking tilapia you got there and I can only imagine how sweet and fresh it’s flesh must has been :) Thanks for sharing!

  11. says

    Sorry to hear about your boiler problems. Ugh. We had a boiler problem in the old house and were out of heat for several days a few years ago and it was h-e-double hockey sticks.
    On the other hand, I love whole fish and your tilapia looks positively delish.

  12. says

    The way you tell about the dead boiler saga is funny, even though experiencing it must not be ūüėõ
    I’m like you in that I have nothing against whole beasties cooked in their original shape. I once knew a cashier who was afraid of any food that came from an animal and still in it’s original form, i.e. lobster, whole fish, rabbit, etc. She’d gasp and back up and call one of the bag boys to scan it for her! lolll. She wasn’t working in the right kind of job! lol.
    I once had amazing baked tilapia and have been meaning to make it ever since. Thanks for the recipe, I’ll make this soon!

  13. says

    Sorry for my husband’s gruff post. He’s not been himself lately as he is awaiting a large wire transfer that has not yet arrived.
    I’m not a real doctor. I’m a nurse. Even so, I consider tilapia — or any foodstuff imported from China — to be potentially toxic. Much of their commercial fishing occurs in filthy, garbage-strewn waters.
    We’ll not eat that, thanks.
    I am sure you could substitute USA farm-raised catfish for the tilapia, though, just to be sure.
    This looks to be a delicious recipe. Thanks.

  14. Iris says

    I made this once for my boyfriend and it was so successful that we use this as a reference now every time I cook Tilapia but we mix it up with a lot of variations, various different herbs inside, fresh thyme, bell pepper and various seasonings on the outside. Thanks. :)

  15. says

    Thank you so much for posting this recipe! Tonight my 5 yr old washed, dried, and stuffed two whole Tilapia for the family to eat this evening. There was much giggling and “ewww I touched it’s eye!” but she successfully completed the job and was quite pleased with herself =).

  16. Stephanie says

    Thank you! Thank you! Thank you! I had no idea where to start but when i saw tilapia on sale for less than two dollars each i knew i had to find a way to cook them! This was delicious and easy to make! Thanks again!

  17. thomas schultz says

    it seems there are a few typos in your recipe…..it says preheat oven to 200 degrees…should this read 500? I have researched a couple other recipes online, and they say broil at 500 for about 20 minutes. 200 degrees seems to cool of a temparature to cook fish.

    • Jeanne says

      Hi Thomas – thanks for the comment. No, no typos in the recipe. My recipe requires you to heat the oven to 200 degrees Celsius which is correct – I can’t think of anything you’d conceivably cook in a domestic oven at 500 Celsius. The Fahrenheit equivalent of 200C is about 400F – so maybe you are thinking of the Fahrenheit temperature?