Steamed Tilapia. Yes. No. Maybe.

Steamed Tilapia with Citrus Salsa and Spinach

I eat eggs. There I said it. I even eat raw eggs. I eat red meat and potatoes too. Are you shocked? Well don’t be. Every one of these delicious foods was (at one time or another) considered poison to the modern American diet. These delicious and healthful foods are once again finding favor. Tilapia too.

Do you remember when tilapia wasn’t just considered unhealthful, it was considered poison. And I don’t just mean poison to foodaphobes I mean it was literally supposed to kill people. Well, I was never one of those people– so I never stopped eating it. In fact I made (and ate) this Steamed Tilapia with Citrus Salsa and Spinach to prove a point. The point being that you can’t always trust what you read about the latest diets. Because food, just like women’s heels, change with the whims of fashion. And just like haute couture these whims are often driven by the market forces out to make a buck.

The tilapia scare started about 10 years ago. Somebody’s friend’s mother’s aunt supposedly died after eating tilapia. Supposedly it caused an allergic reaction in some people shortly after injesting the fish. The story was bunk, but the bad rap stuck. Until more recently.

These days, tilipia (steamed or otherwise) is becoming extremely popular. Americans eat almost 500 million pounds of tilapia each year, four times the amount consumed during the tilapia scare of a decade ago. This change in fortune comes because tilapia (as with most fish) is generally believed to be good for your health. There’s even a good argument that farmed tilapia is good for the environment. That’s because responsibly farmed tilipia is a fast growing fish that requires relatively few resources to bring to market. Tilapia farms generally use large above ground tanks, so the impact on natural ecosystems is minimal. These two factors help make this fish a valuable food source in poor tropical countries around the world. That’s good news for hungry people.

However, as the pendulum swings back in the favor of our fishy friend, there’s more food news to consider. As tilapia has grown in popularity big business sees an opportunity for profit. By artificially changing the fishes’ diet, some farms can increase profit. This is where farmed tilapia begins to lose some of its allure because the fish are fed a cheap diet of corn and soy instead of lake plants and algae (the diet that produced the healthful benefits of wild tilapia). Does this mean you should (once again) stop eating tiplapia? Should I?

For me the choice is easy. I won’t stop eating tilapia (farmed or otherwise). But like so many of our modern food choices tilapia is becoming complicated. I buy tilapia from stores that source from reputable American farms that I believe I can trust. Gaining that trust takes a bit of research, but the information is out there. The LA Times recently reported that “Whole Foods, Safeway (Vons and Pavilions in Southern California) and Trader Joe’s were ranked among the best nationally.” Retailers such as Target, Walmart, Costco, Albertsons and Ralphs received slightly lower scores.

For me it boils down to this. I refuse to get on the Food-Fad-Merry-Go-Round. Because, when you consider food trends “the only thing you can be certain about is their reversal”. Foods that were once considered healthful, can in the blink of an eye, fall out of favor and back again (as in the case of tilapia, eggs, red meat and potatoes). Do you remember the ‘fat-free’ products of the 1990s? Today they’re considered among the worst of the worst processed foods because they had to add gobs of sugar to replace the flavor that naturally occurs in a reasonable amount of healthy fat. The food industry got fat off the ‘fat free’ fad. So did fad-loving foodaphobes. What about high-fiber diets? Well, those were literally flushed-down the toilet. You get the idea.

Currently we’re avoiding gluten. Though many of us have no idea why or even what glutens are. If you don’t believe me ask Jimmy Kimmel. He tries to answer the question in the video below.

But look– almost 700 words in and I forgot to mention why I like this Steamed Tilapia with Citrus Salsa and Spinach so much. I like it because it’s an example of the oldest food fad in the book. It’s a balanced meal with no processed foods, and it tastes delicious. GREG

Sources: Russ Parsons, Elisabeth Rosenthal and David Sax

Steamed Tilapia with Citrus Salsa and Spinach

Steamed Tilapia with Citrus Salsa and Spinach 

Print This Recipe Total time Yield 4Source Inspired by Martha StewartPublished
Steamed Tilapia with Citrus Salsa and Spinach


  • 2 large navel oranges
  • 1 large lemon
  • ½ small shallot (peeled and thinly sliced into rounds)
  • ½ habanero chile (stem, seeds, and ribs removed, finely chopped )
  • 1 tablespoon minced cilantro
  • 1 teaspoon fresh lime zest
  • 1 tablespoon fresh lime juice
  • 1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1 teaspoon honey
  • ¼ teaspoon kosher salt
  • ¼ teaspoon freshly cracked black pepper
  • 4 tilapia filets (skinned)
  • 6 cup baby spinach (about 6 ounces)


Create the citrus segments: Start by identifying the top, stem end of the orange. Using a small paring knife, slice off this top and then the bottom, just enough to expose the pulp. Begin at the top, just where the pith (white part) meets the pulp and slice downward towards the bottom removing a 1 to 1 ½ inch section of peel. Try to cut away all of the pith but very little of the flesh, following the curve of the fruit as well as you can. It does take practice but it is not hard.

Continue the process working around the fruit in 8 or so slices. Your peeled fruit will end up vaguely octagonal as you look at it from above.

Take a look at your handiwork and carefully shave off any remaining pith.

Next slice out each segment by cutting in towards the center of the fruit along the membranes/walls on either side of each segment. If you are unsure about this, take a good look at the fruit before you slice. You’ll see white lines that mark the edges of each segment. Run your knife down one side between the flesh and the membrane, then the other side of the same segment. Remove the segment, placing it in a medium bowl. Repeat with the lemon.

Add the shallot, chile, cilantro, lime zest and juice, oil, honey, and 1/8 teaspoon each salt and pepper to the bowl with the citrus segments. Let stand at room temperature 15 minutes, gently stirring occasionally.

Fill a wok or large pot with 1 inch of water. Bring to a boil. Line bottom basket of a 10-inch, 2‑tiered round bamboo steamer with parchment paper. (Alternatively, use two pots fitted with steamer inserts.) Season fish using remaining 1/8 teaspoon each salt and pepper. Arrange in a single layer in bottom basket. Cover, and set over boiling water. Steam until fish is just barely cooked through, about 5 minutes. Put spinach into top basket, and set over bottom basket. Steam until spinach is bright green and just wilted and the fish is completely opaque and cooked, about 2 minutes more.

Divide spinach among 4 plates. Top each with fish and ½ cup salsa. Serve remaining salsa on the side.