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Golden Tilapia Swims Into San Diego Menus

February 27, 1992|KITTY MORSE

Farm-raised fish--especially fish raised miles away from the ocean, is a relative newcomer to the local aqua-culture scene. Golden Tilapia, a fish with a distinguished past but still relatively unknown here, is now being marketed to North County consumers.

It is featured at a number of area restaurants, including La Paloma and Monika's Bistro in Vista, and the Fish House Veracruz in San Marcos. Rex Butler, owner/manager of the Fish House, describes Golden Tilapia as "a very mild fish, moist and firm, with a taste like a cross between sea bass and a trout."

Restaurateur Bob Cherry, owner of La Paloma in Vista, says the fish has also been a popular item on his menu.

"We now serve up to forty pounds of the farm-raised tilapia a week," he said. "It's delicious sauteed, and works perfectly for Mexican ceviche. It's very popular. The subtle flavor reminds me somewhat of a sand dab or a Dover sole."

Much of the Golden Tilapia being served locally is being raised north of here in Riverside County. Solar Aquafarms, a futuristic establishment in Sun City, is the largest enterprise in the United States farming Golden Tilapia.

Although not well-known to most American consumers, Golden Tilapia enjoys a distinguished culinary reputation in other parts of the world. In Egypt, appreciation for the fish harks back to the times of the Pharaohs, who immortalized it in carvings and hieroglyphics. Golden Tilapia is also thought to be the fish Jesus miraculously produced to feed the multitudes. It became officially known as Saint Peter's fish, when, on another occasion, Jesus filled Saint Peter's nets with it.

Wild tilapia is still caught in the Nile, in some areas of Latin America and in the waters of the Great Rift Lakes in Africa. Their farm-raised American cousins have a predictable lifestyle that ensures a consistent product.

In the shadow of the Double Buttes a few miles out of Sun City, the stark landscape is dotted with outsized plastic domes, built to shelter dozens of tanks filled with tilapia in various stages of development.

The fish do swimmingly, so to speak, in the temperature-controlled environment kept in the mid-80s. This ideal atmosphere most closely simulates the Golden Tilapia's natural habitat. "Tilapia are clustered in the warm areas of the world," explains Randall De Mattei, vice president of marketing and distribution, as he leads visitors through a greenhouse as warm and moist as a tropical forest.

Large aerators ensure the water's continuous recycling. Everything, from the critical amount of oxygen in the water to the quantity of pellets the fish feed on, requires constant monitoring. To demonstrate the ingenious feeding system, De Mattei releases a shower of grain pellets from an overhead pipe into the water below, causing the surface to churn wildly as hundreds of hungry fish break the surface.

Contrary to popular belief, stresses De Mattei, Golden Tilapia is not a scavenger fish. In the wild, it survives in fresh, salt or brackish waters, feeding strictly on algae. At Solar Aquafarms, controlling the tilapia's environment means controlling diet as well. For this purpose, several greenhouses serve as "growing grounds" for the blue-green algae or spirulina, which serves as the fish's dietary supplement.

"Tilapia are very territorial when they're breeding," says De Mattei as he explains the dozen little gates spaced evenly throughout one of the large breeding tanks. Much as they would in the wild, the male fish lays claims to an area, waiting for its mate. The fish develop from fingerling size to their 1 1/2- to 2-pound market size within 9 to 12 months. Along the way, the fish undergo a series of "taste tests" by Solar Aquafarms employees.

They are cooked and sampled once before harvest, when they are transferred from the grow-out tanks into the final football field-sized "raceways" or holding tanks, and again immediately before being processed for shipping. The fish are held live in the tanks until they are filleted by hand in a refrigerated warehouse.

Golden Tilapia fillets boast a high moisture content and a firm texture.

The fish is low in cholesterol, and high in Omega 3 fish oils. A typical serving is one to three fillets, and there are usually about four to five fillets to a pound. Tilapia can be broiled, sauteed, baked, poached, grilled or fried, without fear of overcooking. Undercooking will alter the flavor, as the fish typically requires two to three minutes longer cooking time than other types. Golden Tilapia will stay fresh for up to two weeks if stored below 35 degrees at all times, and won't freeze until it reaches 28 degrees.

Solar Aquafarms, P.O. Box 530, Sun City, CA 92586. (714) 926-1594.

Elmer's Foods, Larry Nichols, Golden Tilapia distributor in North County. 699-1203.

Boney's Market, 705 E. Vista Way, Vista, CA 92083. 758-7175. Frozen fillets, $4.98 per pound.

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