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.
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
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.
Who is Mija?
Mija is Lesley Téllez, a food writer and culinary guide in New York City. I spent four years in Mexico's Distrito Federal, which launched my deep love for Mexican food and culture. In 2010 I co-founded the tourism company Eat Mexico.
Be kind, ask permission!All photos on this site were taken by me, unless otherwise noted. If you'd like to use a photo, please email me.
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