The humble, healthy tilapia, or bream as it’s more commonly known, is the only freshwater fish we consume here because it’s farmed next door at a state-of-the-art facility that produces a species native to the Zambezi River which, at least on this stretch above Victoria Falls, has been more or less fished out by illegal netting.
Our house sits above the fish farm, and over the past four years we’ve watched in awe as it’s grown to match the demand of the local market. From the outset, it’s been an exemplar of best practice producing fish that is of far superior quality to the tilapia fillets flown in from China and sold at our local grocery stores.
When you’re lucky enough to eat really fresh fish — like out of the water, into an ice bath, and on to the plate — my bet is you will never eat it imported from afar again. We prepare our neighbour’s tilapia sashimied, ceviched, sautéed, or poached. When we choose to cook it, we take great care for fear of losing its soft, moist sweetness. We serve it simply, variously with lemon oil and garlic chives; with burnt butter and dill; with fennel slices, preserved lime and roasted mongongo nuts. Not a lot needs to be done to such deliciousness.
Recently, the fish farm started selling hot-smoked whole tilapia into the local market, and when I learned this I was reminded of how I love and miss smoked fish pâté. I would normally use smoked mackerel, but it’s not available here. With the help of my kitchen staff, who had previously raved about the quality of the smoked fish, we filleted the soft fatty flesh from the head, skin, fins and bones, and with the simple additions of Greek yoghurt, cream, freshly grated horseradish, lemon juice and dill, we made a pâté, in my opinion of high-standing, the recipe of which is below.
I’m also a believer in that old Polish proverb that says “for fish to taste right, it must swim three times: in water, in butter and in wine.” It’s for this reason that I adore a creamy fish chowder, in which all three are used liberally. When I decided to make a chowder using the tilapia, our peas and fennel were peaking in the garden, so I added them to an adaptation of a traditional recipe. I also used a good sprinkling of smoky paprika, which turned the soup a pretty pale pink. The chowder turned out better than I hoped, with the sweet tilapia chunks lifting it to near perfection.
Creamy Fish Chowder with Fennel & Peas
Yield: 4-6 servings
Notes: If you can’t find fresh fennel bulb, substitute with a teaspoon of dry-roasted fennel seeds.
- 1kg fresh tilapia, or any other firm white fish, cut into bite-sized pieces
- 1 tablespoon fish sauce
- 1 tablespoon olive oil
- 1 tablespoon salted butter
- 3 leeks, white and pale green parts only
- 1 large fennel bulb, outer tough layers removed, sliced widthways
- ½ cup dry white wine
- 500 grams baby potatoes, halved
- 2 cups fish or chicken stock
- 2 bay leaves
- small handful fresh thyme, removed from the sticks about a tablespoon
- 1 teaspoon smoked paprika
- 1 cup garden peas
- 1 cup whole cream
- salt & freshly ground pepper, to taste
- 2 tablespoons fresh parsley, chopped
- 2 tablespoons fresh dill, chopped + extra feathers for garnish
- Mix the pieces of tilapia with the fish sauce in a medium bowl and set aside.
- Slice the leeks into thin rounds and rinse well, taking extra care to clean out all the dirt from the individual rings.
- Heat the oil and butter in a large saucepan over a medium heat. Add the leeks and fennel and cook until softened, about 5 minutes.
- Add the wine to the leeks and fennel, turn up the heat and cook until the wine has reduced by about a half.
- Add the potatoes, fish/chicken stock, bay leaves, thyme and paprika, making sure the potatoes are covered by the liquid. If not, add a little extra water. Bring up to a simmer and boil the potatoes until they are almost cooked, about 10 minutes.
- Heat the cream until its scalding but not boiling.
- Add the fish and fish sauce to the pot of potatoes and leeks, then add the peas and the hot cream. Cook on a low heat until the fish is just cooked through, about 10 minutes, and then turn off the heat. Gently stir in the parsley and dill, season to taste with salt and pepper.
Smoked Tilapia Pâté
Yield: 4 servings
- 2 hot-smoked bream, filleted
- ¾ cup Greek yoghurt
- ½ cup cream
- fish sauce, to taste
- 3 teaspoons freshly grated horseradish
- freshly ground black pepper
- 1 lemon, juiced
- Small handful of dill, finely chopped
- Do a quick check for any fish bones. Flake half of the fillets, mix with the Greek yoghurt, cream, fish sauce and horseradish, and using a food processor or an immersion blender, whizz until smooth.
- Grind in fresh black pepper and mix in the lemon juice, to taste, along with the remaining flakes of fish and chopped dill. Serve at room temperature with melba toast or crackers.