Improvised tilapia pibil

My husband is not a fan of seafood. Usually when I tell people that, they say, “Anything? He doesn’t eat any seafood?” And I say, “No. Nothing.” And then they persist: “Not even shrimp?” And I say no, not even shrimp.

Slowly, slooowly, I’ve been trying to introduce fish, because of its health benefits. But it’s been hard to find a fish that’s not overly fishy-tasting. (And it pains me to say that, because I love fish that’s overly fishy tasting.) A while back when we lived in Texas, I asked him if he wouldn’t mind tasting some tilapia. He agreed, and so I baked it in parchment and drizzled on some olive oil and lemon juice.

To my shock, he actually ate the whole thing. And he didn’t grimace, which is what he usually does when he doesn’t like a certain food. (The funny part is that he doesn’t know he’s grimacing. It’s pretty cute.)

We haven’t eaten fish in awhile, so yesterday I bought a few tilapia filets and decided to cook them in Yucatecan pibil-style spices. Pibil comes from the Mayan word “pib,” which means “cooked in an earthen oven.” The term generally refers to meat that’s been marinated in a mix of achiote, sour orange juice, garlic and spices. It’s wrapped in banana leaves and baked — traditionally in an underground pit — on low heat, until the meat is falling-apart tender. Cochinita pibil is perhaps the most famous dish made this way.

The pibil spices aren’t hot, in terms of chile peppers. The marinade is a combination of subtle flavors, with a zesty kick from the sour orange juice. It’s also pretty easy to throw together. If you don’t have sour orange juice, you can use half white vinegar and half regular orange juice.

I’m calling this “improvised” tilapia pibil because I baked it in aluminum foil, not banana leaves. (Not because I eschew banana leaves — I just didn’t have any on hand.) It worked fine. I need to keep banana leaves in the freezer though, because they impart a certain aroma that you don’t get with regular old foil or parchment paper.

By the way, Crayton enjoyed this. He ate the whole thing, again, with no grimaces. So we’re tilapia 2 for 2.

Recipe below.

Tilapia Pibil
Serves 4
Copied pretty shamlessly from the wonderful Karen Hursh Graber at MexConnect

Note: The star ingredient here is achiote paste, which is sold in little square blocks all over Mexico and at Latino markets in the U.S. It’s gotten a higher profile in recent years, so you may be able to find it at a gourmet grocery store in the States. If you can’t find the paste, I wouldn’t attempt a substitution.

Also, the original recipe says bake for 25 to 30 minutes. If you’ve only got about a pound’s-worth of fish, like I had, I’d start checking on it around the 15-17 minute mark. I overcooked mine just a wee bit.

Pibil-style dishes are traditionally eaten with habanero peppers and onions, and/or strips of pickled red onions. If you’d like to make your own pickled onions, Epicurious has a simple recipe. Or try Orangette for pickled onions with a little more pizazz. If you’re lucky enough to live in Mexico City, you can buy a container of red pickled onions for 20-ish pesos at the Yucatecan stand at Mercado Medellín.


4 tilapia filets (mine were about 1.3-lbs worth)
1 100-gram cube of achiote powder — I like El Yucateco
1/2 teaspoon oregano
1/4 teaspoon cumin
2 garlic cloves, pressed
3/4 cup mixture of the following: half orange juice, half white vinegar
pinch of allspice
pinch of cinnamon
olive oil

About 1 1/2 hours before you’re ready to start eating, mix the achiote, oregano, cumin, garlic, orange juice/vinegar mixture, allspice and cinnamon in a small bowl. Mix well and make sure there aren’t any chunks of achiote paste floating around. (I gently used my immersion blender to do this, but I nearly sprayed marinade everywhere, so cuidado if you do the same.)

Place filets in a glass casserole dish, and pour the marinade over the top. Turn to coat. Refrigerate for one hour.

Preheat oven to 375F or 200 C. Tear off four squares of aluminum foil, and place each filet in the center, wrapping each into a packet. Drizzle each with a little olive oil — to make sure the oil doesn’t gush out, you can pour some into a small bowl and use a spoon. Bake for 15 to 20 minutes or until tender but not dry. (Note: I baked mine for 25 and this was too much.) Serve with tortillas and pickled onions, and a mellow side such as beans or a mild veggie. We did zucchini and corn.

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10 Responses to “Improvised tilapia pibil”
  1. Mike

    Tilapia is my favorite fish even though I’ve heard some chef types call it a nothing fish because it is so mild. But, if you infuse it with flavors like you did, you get the health benefits without the strong fish taste.

  2. Maria Pellum

    Se me hace agua la boca! Here in NJ I might just be able to get all the ingredients, and since you are making it sound so easy I will try, for the first time, to cook Pibil. Thanks for sharing and for the recipes’ and their links!

    • Lesley

      Glad you enjoyed it. This was my first time cooking pibil too, and I promise you it’s not hard. If you do end up making it, definitely let me know how it turns out!

  3. Arlene

    I don’t like seafood either, not even shrimp, and a friend made me try Tilapia just a few weeks ago…it’s GOOD! I, too, ate it without making faces and enjoyed every second of it 😀

    • Lesley

      Hmmm, interesting. So maybe starting with tilapia is a thing among non-seafood eaters? I picked it because it was fairly inexpensive, and I suppose it was mild. (I can’t even tell anymore. Give me my fishy fish!) But I’m glad to hear you had a good experience.

  4. Genevieve

    Can’t believe how popular tilapia has become, nor the prices people are paying. Marketing is everything. Persons “of a certain age” just aren’t going to eat catfish or mojarra no matter how it is raised.

  5. Kathy

    I can’t even eat tilipia. It is still too fishy for me. Strangely enough i can only eat canned tuna with mayo on it.I’m not a fan of that either but I can manage (it only has the fishy smell but not the taste).I want to eat seafood because it looks so good, especially mojarras, but once I start eating I start grimacing. Maybe i’ll develop a taste for it as I get older. Ha.

  6. Ruth Alegria

    Lesley, for sour orange juice better to use lime then vinegar. Recommend Diana Kennedy’s From My Mexican Kitchen – Ingredients and Techniques .
    Her recipe for bitter/sour orange is on pg. 110.
    And please to everyone – don’t buy that horrible stuff that comes in bottles, it has nothing to do with the juice.
    And for Maria Pellem, I had a Mexican restaurant in Princeton New Jersey for years starting in 1974 and finding ingredients always meant going to NYC. No longer – if you live anywhere near New Brunswick ( which has a NJ Rail station) you’ll have your choice of dozens of Mexican grocery stores for everything you need, including those banana leaves and Yucatecan achiote paste.

    • Lesley

      Thanks Ruth. The lime juice is a good tip. I didn’t have any in my house (I’m in between lime-buying visits), but I did have vinegar, so that’s what I went with.

  7. Don Cuevas

    Tilapia: the tofu of fish.

    That’s all I have to say.

    Don Cuevas

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