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Consumers get hooked on tilapia

US - It's the fish that chefs love to hate, but shoppers prize, and both for the same reason: This fish isn't fishy, writes Walter Nicholls.

Tilapia is now ranked as the fifth-most-consumed seafood in the nation.

But consumers are winning the debate, and tilapia is swimming its way to ubiquity, thanks to selective breeding programs, improvements in farming efficiency, skilled marketing and the commitment of big grocery chains.That it is ecologically sustainable and relatively cheap doesn't hurt, either.

In just a few years, Americans' annual consumption of tilapia has quadrupled, from a quarter-pound per person in 2003 to a full pound in 2006. The National Marine Fisheries Service now ranks it as the fifth-most-consumed seafood in the nation, still far behind shrimp (at 4.4 pounds per person a year), but growing fast.

Researchers think tilapia is destined to be one of the most important farmed seafood products of the century.

But then there's the taste, or lack of it. What plenty of customers appreciate as versatility is also what gives tilapia a bad name among chefs who think mildness isn't a virtue.

Bob Kinkead, chef-owner of Kinkead's in Washington, DC, and Colvin Run Tavern in Virginia, didn't pull any punches when asked about tilapia, calling it "insipid," "sponge-like" and "inferior."

Tilapia has been farm-raised as far back as ancient Egypt, and now such farming occurs in more than 85 countries. The fish is widely available in many chain restaurants and in most supermarkets, where it's sold freshly filleted, frozen and, in some stores, live.

At Red Lobster restaurants, where tilapia is served grilled, blackened, broiled or stuffed with lobster and crabmeat, sales of the fish have doubled over the past three years. "With customers, it's one of the most popular seafood products," says company spokeswoman Wendy Spirduso. "Americans tend to like mild-tasting fish, and our chefs call it a blank canvas, open to changing flavors."

Tilapia's biggest boom is in imports, which make up as much as 95 percent of tilapia consumed in this country: 349 million pounds last year, up 17 percent from 2005. The overwhelming majority of the imports are frozen fillets from China. In June, the US Food and Drug Administration imposed a ban on imports of five types of farmed seafood from China, including shrimp and catfish, but tilapia imports were not affected.

Fresh fillets come primarily from Ecuador, Honduras and Costa Rica. There is no tilapia season; the fish is available year-round. Wild-caught hybrids are common in warm waters of Africa and Southeast Asia, but farmed varieties, raised in a controlled environment, are said to have a more desirable flavor.

Source: NorthJersey/Washington Post