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Tilapia misery

  • d

This has been bugging me since last weekend and I am curious about any experiences out there. I was pretty excited to find fish tacos on a menu (finding a decent rendition in Manhattan is a thin business at best) and ordered 'em up. The fish was tilapia and it was horrible, at least to me. Not as in Bad Fish, but it had a muddy, unappealing taste that no amount of spice could make palatable.

I'm wondering if this was a curious happening or perhaps a characteristic of the fish itself. Or maybe my sense of taste is still compromised by a sinus misery last February that nearly (nearly) put me off martinis.

I love fish, all fish, from arctic char to sturgeon (okay, I don’t really like sturgeon, and don't worry too much about the mackeral next time, come to that), but I reeeeeely didn’t love that tilapia. God, it was lousy!

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  1. No, can't blame your dislike on sinus infection, tilapia does often taste muddy.

    6 Replies
    1. re: 4chowpups

      I've stopped buying the stuff because it is so often muddy like that and, to me, inedible.

      1. re: bibi rose

        Have to agree. It is a farmed and nasty fish. It almost always tastes muddy to me, just like (most) catfish. Even the live tilapia I've had at Chinese restaurants dissapoints. People eat it because it is cheap but if cheap was my only criteria I would choose a non-fish dish.

        1. re: JudiAU

          I've certainly eaten my share of muddy-tasting wild catfish, but the catfish farms in the Mississippi delta produce fish that always taste clean and delicious to me. In fact, I'm frying Mississippi catfish for supper tonight. Hot diggity! I totally agree about the tilapia and will never buy it again.


          1. re: JudiAU

            Tastes pretty much like catfish to me, which is probably my favorite fish of all. Especially wild catfish, but that's becoming real hard to find. But if you don't like catfish, I'd say you definitely won't like tilapia.

            1. re: Steve

              The reason that Tilapia is cheap and farmed so much is because it's one of the most productive and farm friendly fish! The joke is you could throw two tilapia in a bathtub and start a farm of your own.

              Like the above poster, I love catfish and I enjoy Tilapia, which I mostly buy live from the tank at 99 Ranch and sometimes have them deep fry for me right there... Hmmm...

              On the flip side though, I hate Salmon... even the wild stuff I've had... BLEH!!! :P So in the end, as always, it has to do with personal preference...


          2. re: bibi rose

            Mark Bittman's book about fish has no recipes for tilapia because of the flavor quality issues. So I'd say it's quite likely that it's the fish, not the sinus problem.

        2. I get fish tacos made with tilapia from a restaurant in my neighborhood, and I don't find the fish to be muddy-tasting in the least. On the contrary, it has a very mild flavor.

          Occasionally, they substitute salmon, which to me, tastes not necessarily bad, but too strong for its seasonings and the chipotle sauce they put on the taco.

          Come to think of it, sometimes salmon just doesn't taste right to me at all. Hmm.

          2 Replies
          1. re: gina

            Doe you get fried or grilled tacos?

            1. re: MidtownCoog

              The fish is marinated and sauteed, served on flour tortillas. I'm kind of addicted to them.

          2. I used to get tilapia fillets once in a while about 3 yrs. ago when I was on a tight budget and that was one of the rare fishes I could justify buying. I'd bread them and pan fry them like fried catfish. They sufficed then.

            That said, I would never buy them today. First, they have grown ridiculously expensive for what they are. And now that I can afford higher-end seafood, I recognize that tilapia has very little flavor w/ crappy texture...what I describe as gray and blah. Some muddiness can be appealing, as I still love good southern or Chinese style catfish.

            1. I think the muddy taste isn't an inherent characteristic of tilapia, but happens at times due to blooms of blue-green algae in the ponds where they're raised. Blue-green algae can be a problem in public water supplies as well, where they produce a similar "muddy" odor and flavor in the water - and there are well-established ways to correct the problem, so the off flavor could be thought of as a result of poor aquaculture practices. I don't have any personal knowledge of any of that, but it's what I've been able to glean from a fair bit of reading about the issue - and it's consistent with the usual conflicting reports about the taste of tilapia.

              1 Reply
              1. re: FlyFish

                That has been my impression as well. Just as some farmed salmon is good and most is blah to horrid. I blame the ever-present downward pressure on price (the enemy is us). I've had excellent tilapia lately (in restaurants) so have had to revise my initial "never-again" opinion.

                I want to like it because it can be farmed pretty much anywhere, and indoors, and I like the idea of locally farmed fish.

              2. You experience mirrors mine.

                I think it's the fish. Nasty farm raised mullet.

                1. The tilapia we had in Costa Rica was uniformly excellent. They even used it in ceviche.

                  But the tilapia I bought from my local Asian superstore was raised in China, frozen in beautiful fillets, and nasty. Both my fish-loving 5 year-old and I rejected it.

                  As other posters have suggested, it may well reflect the aquaculture conditions.

                  1 Reply
                  1. re: PollyG

                    [The tilapia we had in Costa Rica was uniformly excellent]

                    I just got back from Costa Rica, where I also had some wonderful tilapia - maybe they have tastier mud there?

                    (I saw a couple of tilapia farm/restaurants, where you could (rather unsportingly, I think) hook your own fish from the not-terribly-spacious waters, and they'd cook it up for you. I declined.)

                    The braised tilapia with soy sauce and scallions at Taiwan Cafe in Boston is one of my favorite fish dishes in the world, so I know domestic tilapia *can* taste good - I haven't had luck cooking it at home, but that could be an issue with my fish vendor, aquaculture practices, or my own incompetence in the kitchen - my bet's on #3 there...

                  2. Hmmm - contrary to the others, I buy tilapia all the time and I have no problem with it. I won't pay too much for it, because I like most other fish better.

                    Does anybody know why there wasn't any tilapia at all until about 7 years ago? Did the industry just change the name of another fish to make it more palatable? Perhaps it was called "mudfish" before or something.

                    1. I had the same experience once and never ate the stuff again. I have noted that in his cookbook , "How To Cook Everything", Mark Bittman says he never uses Talapia due to its muddy taste. He attributes this to it being farm raised.

                      1. You know what's funny? On Monday, I got dragged to Applebee's by my cohorts at work. I didn't want to waste my calories on anything there, so I went with the "healthy option". Grilled/broiled (I didn't pay attention) tilapia with mixed veggies it was.

                        It was a darned good piece of fish!

                        Not revelatory by any means. And I get dragged to Applebee's enough to know if I ordered that same dish at that same restaurant a billion times, it would never taste that good again.

                        But hey, someone has to win that lottery. Must have been my time.

                        Of all things.

                        1. An amazing thread. All this talk on the board about tilapia over the past year and until now no one mentioned that it didn't taste very good. Finally someone does and loads of people chime in.

                          1 Reply
                          1. re: Bob Martinez

                            Ginny and I like tilapia. Okay, so it's not so big a deal about me liking it, since I'll eat most anything. But, she's pickier. I'll ask her where she's liked it the most. Hopefully, she'll remember (she's less picky about remembering food) and I'll get back to you if she does. May have been La Bouilliabaisse.

                          2. I've had tilapia 2 different ways. The first being a "whole"(skin, head, tail, bones) tilapia crispy fried for me from 99 Ranch market and tilapia fillets from Costco(boneless skinless) pan seared with a few spices.

                            The crispy fried whole tilapia was great. The texture is flakey white & no "muddy" flavors.

                            The tilapia fillets that were pan seared were a different story though, they turned out crumbly, tough, "chewy" and tasted "muddy" alright. It didn’t taste like the same fish at all.

                            Could there be a distinct difference in how the fish comes to you? Whole as opposed to filleted? I would think the fish tacos were made with fillets of tilapia. Who knows, just throwing a theory out there.

                            4 Replies
                            1. re: e.d.

                              Mirrors my experience, sort of. Tilapia that's corn-meal dipped and deep-fried, at the chippie, is always great. Tilapia in fish tacos, I've never enjoyed.

                              Um, maybe it's just the crispy/greasy/hot that's good.

                              1. re: e.d.

                                Unless I am writing posts in my sleep, this was posted by a different e.d.

                                I have been using e.d. as a posting name since I discovered Chowhound.com in 2000. Could I ask you, please, to choose a different name?

                                This is no reflection on your post, which raises a good point, but some longtime 'hounds have gotten used to my eccentricities and taste preferences and the world is confusing enough without adding to it.


                                ed davis

                                  1. re: edw

                                    Thanks a lot! And welcome to Chowhound. Since you go to Ranch 99 mkt, are you from Socal somewhere?

                              2. I usually use tilapia to make fish tacos and I like it. I usually marinate it in fresh lime juice, olive oil, cilantro, jalepenos, and cumin. Grill it up and it comes out pretty tasty. It is a mild fish so its good for taking on other flavors and its pretty cheap - I wouldn't waste a higher priced fish on fish tacos. Usually serve it in a flour tortilla with shredded cabbage or lettuce, sour cream, hot sauce, cheese, and a mango salsa. Mmmm....fish tacos.

                                1. I have always thought tilapia was GNARLY. I love fish, but any tilapia I've ever had has been, well, muddy is a good description, and with a gross chewy texture. I hear people talk about how much they like it, and it mystifies me.

                                  Especially in fish tacos! For shame!

                                  1. I am mystified. I have enjoyed tilapia for years. Admittedly I have almost always purchased from the same supermarket and have never eaten it in restaurants. It has a mild flavor and simple sauteeing and saucing is successful.

                                    I am not sure what "muddy-tasting" is, but I would probably recognize it as the designation hardly sounds appealing.

                                    1. I always keep a bag of tilapia fillets in my freezer. It thaws so quickly that it's something I can make for dinner even when I haven't thought of what I want to make. Never ever have had a problem with muddiness - and I totally know exactly what you're talking about. I've always found tilapia to have a very clean mild flavour. It doesn't knock my socks off, but for a fast saute with a deglazing of white wine and capers it works for me. I have to think that not all tilapia is farmed the same.

                                      1. i grew up eating oceanic fish. when i was introduced to fresh water fish, i immediately disliked it, tilapia included. i am assuming it has alot to do with the environment the fish lives in as well as its food source. it is true, there is a muddy sort of taste that is difficult to mask even with lots of herbs and spices. interestingly though, when i moved to canada and had farmed raised tilapia, it had none of that muddy flavour.

                                        1 Reply
                                        1. re: melissa

                                          the dirt taste of freshwater fish always puts me off. often asian grocers and restaurants will get frozen tilapia from asia that taste muddy so i can see how that may differ from localy raised fish. my filipino bf's family always have tilapia and it almost always tastes like dirt to me. he says it's a cheap garbage fish that's being marketed to ppl who don't know what good fish tastes like... personally i don't eat it mostly because of all the fine bones.

                                        2. Sorry, Deb. I just couldnt resist. Here's a link to the American Tilapia Association's website:


                                          "An educated consumer is (the) best customer"

                                          1 Reply
                                          1. re: Steve R.

                                            I’ve gained some insight from this thread and understand the “blue-green algae that often occur in intensive culture ponds” is probably responsible for some variables in the taste of this fish.

                                            And thanks, Steve, for the link to the American Tilapia Association. Riveting. I have been to Charles Town, WV, but only to the race track there. I loved it to death. If I had known the American Tilapia Association was there, based on my last tilapia experience, I might have detoured briefly to throw eggs at their fence.

                                            I am not sure of too many things, but I am sure, after that last fish taco, that I am never going to eat that manky stuff again. There will be more for those who like it.

                                            I’m never eating mangos again, either, and I love those, but that’s another story.

                                          2. The muddy flavor you experienced was likely due to fat soluble compounds produced by blue-green algae that often occur in intensive culture ponds. In the catfish industry, fish are required to be flavor-checked before a pond in harvested, I am not aware if tilapia producers are required to do this. 'Off-flavor' is a big problem in the catfish industry as farmers can't harvest ponds in this condition.

                                            1. t

                                              I've read this thread with interest because I have been eating a lot of tilapia in the past 2-3 years. Not *once* have I tasted this muddiness that many posters have mentioned. I recently read that some people cannot smell camphor -- it seems that there is a gene for those of us who can't taste muddiness in tilapia, too! :-)

                                              I've eaten it fresh, grilled, broiled, frozen (from Costco and even ALDI!) and never tasted anything but a light, flaky fish.

                                              1. I eat quite a bit of tilapia and have never come across a muddy flavor. My sister however, did complain of an off taste which she said was a "moldy" taste. I do marinade it in a lime/olive oil/garlic mixture, so it really has little taste except that of the marinade. I like it because it is a quick, low calorie meal and I buy it individually wrapped and frozen from Sam's Club.

                                                1. Tilapia has to one of the worst fish around..
                                                  In San Diego where the fish taco is king..we would never use Tilapia..we use cod mostly but love seabass or halibut tacos.
                                                  I am a huge fish lover but no Tilapia for me!

                                                  1. I've never discerned a muddy flavor in tilapia, but then I've never discerned any flavor whatsoever in tilapia (and can't even guess how it would be after being frozen, which usually saps flavor from fish). I think of it as the fish for people who don't like fish. And if you do like fish, there are dozens of better choices.

                                                    2 Replies
                                                    1. re: MommaJ

                                                      Or you could eat a paper towel and call it talapia.

                                                      1. re: missclaudy

                                                        I thought I was the only one who loathed this popular fish. I only started eating fish again last fall (after 20 years) and was eager to try tilapia. I have had it several times (kept thinking I'd have better luck the next time) and no matter how it's cooked, it always makes me feel queasy. I have discovered that I much prefer salt-water fish, so it must be a fresh-water issue.

                                                    2. I too think tilapia is just "blah." And what really makes me annoyed is going to a restaurant and seeing dishes featuring tilapia that cost more than 5X the cost of a pound in my local supermarket. Nervy...

                                                      1. I recently ate tilapia for the first time in my life and I too was wondering if I was the only one who was put off by its taste. I see here that I'm not alone!

                                                        The tilapia was purchased from Costco and was served at a friend's dinner party. Though cooked in a ginger-garlic sauce, the flavour of the tilapia was rather off-putting.

                                                        "Muddy" wasn't what came to mind when I tasted it, but that foul smell of algae from an unkept freshwater aquarium - that's exactly what it tasted like... bleh! Of course, in the company of friends who were gladly chowing down on the stuff, I put on a brave face and cleaned my plate. Ugh!

                                                        What's weird is that I'm a life long fish eater, although I tend to eat a lot of salmon, halibut, tuna, and cod. I've never had a problem with fish, ever, but I don't know if I'd ever readily eat tilapia again.

                                                        2 Replies
                                                        1. re: Florentine

                                                          Just wandered into this thread and am astounded! Tilapia is one of our favorite fish, I don't think I've ever had a bad one, and I've made a lot. And eaten it in Europe and Israel, where it's called St. Peter's Fish, and considered a delicacy. It's cook-friendly, and I've never noticed anything resembling what I'd call a muddy taste. On the other hand, I'm no big fan of salmon, which gets terrific press here.
                                                          De gustibus, and all that...

                                                          1. re: BerkshireTsarina

                                                            I like all fish, tilapia included! I've fixed tilapia Mexican and Asian style - and have told people it was red snapper. No one everr complained (and, so, I lied!). I had salmon two nights ago. I'm fixing barracuda again tonight.

                                                        2. I agree. Muddy was exactly my comment when I first tried tilapia.

                                                          1 Reply
                                                          1. re: salsailsa

                                                            I've tried to like tilapia, and all three or four times I've had it it tasted muddy, so decided no more. Then a few weeks ago I happened to see an episode of Dirty Jobs on fish farming - specifically striped bass. After the water in which the stripers are raised becomes fouled and "used up" by the stripers, it's piped into the tanks where the tilapia are raised. The tilapia eat all the fish excrement and other waste in the water; basically the tilapia are nourished from the garbage and waste after the water is too fouled for the stripers. Explained why tilapia taste muddy and confirmed my decision to never eat tilapia again! Here a a couple of links to a podcast of the episode.


                                                          2. You could go to a pet store and get a tilapia cichlid to raise on your own, keeping it in a clean tank :D

                                                            I was looking over our supplier's availability list the other day for live fish we can order, and tilapia cichlids are almost always on there.

                                                            1. I have been surfing the net recently and came across a tilapia grower that claims that he eliminates the muddy taste of tilapia by keeping the fish in a special clean water tank for a week to purge them of their algae based diet, before offering them for sale. Perhaps whether this step is taken or skipped accounts for the differences between various batches of fish found on the market.

                                                              1. Soak the fillets in buttermilk overnight in the fridge. Do the same with catfish.

                                                                2 Replies
                                                                1. re: pikawicca

                                                                  wouldn't the acidic nature of buttermilk alter the texture of the flesh?

                                                                  1. re: scubadoo97

                                                                    I always soak my catfish in buttermilk, but only for 30 min. to an hour, never had any problem with the texture chaning.

                                                                2. Yes, live tilapia in Chinese restaurants and grocery stores is over-rated.

                                                                  I've bought tilapia that indeed tasted like catfish. If I *want* catfish, I'll *buy* catfish.

                                                                  Best luck I've had was a frozen fillet from Assi Supermarket (it's a national chain of Korean Markets). Didn't have any of the muddy-ness. So we've bought them a few times with good luck every time.

                                                                  Tilapia is best served in preparations with intensely-flavored sauces.