Jamaicans love the sea (even though most cannot swim, but that’s another essay). That said, we tend to frown upon any fish that either comes out of fresh water, or worse, from a fish farm. Of course, many a young man has grown up on janga (crawfish) hauled out of our rivers and streams but again, we’re splitting hairs. Luckily this anti-fresh sentiment isn’t shared by all. A few of us have been fortunate enough to open our minds and taste buds to the beauty of locally farmed Tilapia, most commonly known as the African perch.
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Way back in the day (1949 to be exact), Tilapia (Oreochromis mossambica – don’t bite your tongue now!) was introduced to our fair island, hoping to counter the effects of heavy fish imports and the loss of offshore fishing grounds to our busy, hungry neighbours to the south in South & Central America.
Over the decades that followed, the saltwater hybrid Jamaican Red Tilapia (yes, it started in the sea) variety has been developed through select breeding.
The tilapia, like many of our own ancestors, is native to Africa and the Mediterranean. Fish farming actually dates back to the ancient Egyptians, as many old wall paintings attest. Today, ethnic groups from the Middle East and North Africa make up the largest group of tilapia consumers.
Far from being bland or tasteless, the fish lends itself nicely to bold and exciting flavours, limited only by the mode of preparation and creativity. Anyone doubting the tasty merits of this locally overlooked fish should try the award-winning Herb-stuffed Tilapia in Banana Leaf, prepared by lifelong farmer Donnie Bunting (he also raises sheep and guinea pigs for consumption) at his Longville Park Farm in Clarendon.