Pan-fried Whole Tilapia

Pan-fried Whole Tilapia

I don’t know how to make fish. It’s one of those things that I never really made at home. I want to clarify that I love fish. But here’s what happened: When we first got married, there weren’t a lot of zabiha halal restaurants in some of the smaller cities that we lived in, so we used to eat a lot of seafood when we went out. But my husband doesn’t like the bland tasting seafood served in American restaurants, and eating it completely put him off of fish. As a result, he only wanted to eat chicken and meat at home, so I never learned how to make fish!

That is, until I was introduced to this recipe.

We discovered this recipe in a very unexpected way. My husband was in Las Vegas for a project, and he met with a colleague who was Filipino at his apartment to discuss some work. As lunchtime approached, his colleague offered to make lunch for them. He defrosted a couple of whole tilapias in the microwave, sprinkled some steak seasoning on them and pan fried them. Minutes later, he served them up with white rice. Later on, my husband called and told me about the delicious lunch that he had had. I was in Dallas, and my mother was also visiting.

Frying Whole Tilapia

Frying Whole Tilapia

Now, I really like fish. I’ll take it, bland or spicy, and hearing about his lunch made me crave it, especially since we hadn’t had fish in a long time. That very day I went and got some fresh whole tilapias, and made it exactly per his method. It was so, so easy, and so, so good.

There have been a couple of other times when I’ve had whole fried fish. The first was about 18 odd years ago. We stopped on the roadside on our way to Swat and sat down at tables laid down in a green field. It was batter fried whole fish, and I remember being fascinated that I could see its eyes. There is really so much flavor in the fresh water fish in Pakistan. It was really delicious.

The second time was with my in-laws at Atlanta Fish Market Restaurant in Buckhead, an upscale seafood restaurant. After I placed my order, the server leaned close and warned me that ordering the ‘whole’ fish meant that its head, eyes and all, would be attached, and if I wanted, they would remove the head before serving it to me. Honestly, I don’t really get fazed by such things, and I told him to bring it on! Another delicious meal!

I do know that some people (especially women) get disconcerted by such things. If you are one of those people, then this dish is not for you. Secondly, being from Pakistan, we are very used to eating fish that has bones, compared to skinless, boneless fish fillets. I have to say that this dish has to be embraced and enjoyed for what it is. Head and eyes and skin and bones and all.

Pan Fried Whole Tilapia

Pan Fried Whole Tilapia

So, even though I don’t know how to make fish, this dish has become a staple in our house.

Tilapia mostly has the main skeleton running across its center, and there really aren’t any tiny bones to deal with. I pull the meat away from the skeleton completely from one side, then turn it over and tackle the other side.

I would also like to point out that whole tilapia is very reasonably priced. Because there is no labor involved in cleaning and filleting it, it makes for quite an affordable meal. It may or may not be a quick meal, depending on how many fish you’re frying. If you’re frying 2-4, then it’s quick enough, but if it’s more than that then it will take some time. And don’t forget to open all the windows!!!

Pan fried whole Tilapia

  • Whole tilapia
  • Steak seasoning
  • Salt
  • Oil for frying


  • Thoroughly wash the fish, making sure to clean out the cavity and remove any blood and innards. Pat dry.
  • Make 2-3 cuts on both sides of the fish.
  • Lightly sprinkle both sides and the cavity with salt. Now generously season with steak seasoning. (The steak seasoning contains salt as well)
  • Heat the oil in a 12 inch frying pan but don’t let it get too hot. (The fish should sizzle when it’s added to the oil, but if the oil is too hot then it will burn right away.)

  • Add the fish, and cook on just under medium heat for about 6-9 minutes on each side, (try to turn only once) depending on the size of your fish, or until golden brown and cooked through. Drain on paper towels and serve hot with white rice and a tangy salad.



I just want to say that if you use some other seasoning, or desi masala, and don’t like how it turns out, then don’t blame me!

You may use fresh or frozen fish. I prefer fresh. Defrost frozen fish completely before frying.

There’s a lot of news about how there is no strict regulation on how fish is marked, and a very large number of fish are falsely labelled. The benefit of buying whole fish is that you can see what the fish looks like and be sure that you’re getting the right one! (Although you still can’t be sure about things like farm raised vs wild caught, etc).

Pan Fried Whole Tilapia

Pan Fried Whole Tilapia

I hope you enjoy it!

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