Grilled Whole Tilapia – the Filipino Way (and how to clean out fish guts!)

I love fish! I love it more after I moved here in the US because i don’t have it as much as I used to back in the Philippines. The fish I saw in the big grocers are filleted, come in stick form inside boxes (fish sticks) and whatever shape it was that didn’t involve the head or the tail. I also noticed that very few of my friends who grew up here lack the skill of deboning fish while eating – I know this because I am one of the default deboners whenever I eat out with my friends. I’m blaming you, fish sticks!

Just for the record, I only cook fresh fish – with heads and tails attached. I also buy fish the day I cook it because I live 5 minutes away from the Asian Market.

Ingredients: (serves about 2-4 people with a side of white rice. If serving with salad, allot one fish per person)

  • WHOLE Tilapia, Cleaned at the market and trimmed (See? It’s a cheap dish to make. $5.19 for two!)

  • Garlic, about 3-4 cloves
  • Shallots/Onion, whatever you have – one medium onion or 2-3 shallots
  • Tomatoes, about two medium sized ones.
  • Lemon, 1 piece
  • Soy Sauce
  • Salt and Pepper to taste

Special Equipment:

  • Grill! If you don’t have one, you can stick it in the oven. (Bake at 375 degrees for 20 mins or longer.)
  • Mandolin – if you wanna be fancy, but i don’t own one so I used a knife.
  • Aluminum Foil

Cleaning the Fish: (This gets graphic, you have been warned. However, I’ve been taught as a teenager how to do this.)

I bought fish from the Asian Market, and they always trim and gut it. However, sometimes they don’t get every bit out and further rinsing and cleaning is needed. Note that any blood left in the fish will render a bitter taste when cooked, so roll your sleeves and clean it thoroughly!

  • Check the insides. See if there are more innards left. Don’t be scared.

  • Pull it out! Oh so gross and disgusting! (Told you it was graphic.)

  • Go back into the fish’s cavity and hunt for more gore! Pull it out.

  • Rinse with cold water – DON’T RINSE WITH HOT WATER, it will start cooking the fish, and you dont want that. Rinse until the water runs clear.


Stella Dacuma Schour grilled tilapia filipino recipe cooking with stellaaa

  • Trim the tail and the fins. Trimming it is optional because it doesn’t affect taste. It is also a very annoying and difficult step. Usually the Asian Market will trim it off. Make two slits on each side of the fish, like so. Set Aside.

  • Roughly cut tomatoes, onions/shallots and mince garlic. Add about 2-3 tbsp soy sauce, salt and pepper. Mix well.

  • Cut lemons into thin slices. If you have a mandolin, use it.

  • On a piece of foil big enough to wrap your fish, lay out your lemon slices.

  • Lay your fish on it and Stuff the cavity with the tomatoes, garlic and onion “salad”.

  • Spoon some of the liquid into the slits of the fish.

  • Cover the other side of the fish with lemon slices. Doesn’t it look cute to have some lemon scales? lol

  • Wrap fish tightly, but DON’T ENCASE IT IN ALUMINUM FOIL ORIGAMI. You need access to the fish so you can check its doneness. This will keep in the fridge for up to 48 hours before grilling. It also lets the fish absorb more flavor if you let it marinate for a bit.

  • Grill it over medium heat. It takes about 12-14mins per side, but since i don’t really time it, i usually wait until i see the foil to be a bit burned like this. The fish is protected from burning because of the layer of lemon and it will be moist and flaky inside because of the tomatoes.

Serve it with a side of rice (of course!!!). Filipino food is all about eating with condiments on the side, and I say this pairs well with soy sauce with a squeeze of lemon in it.

Side note: Traditional Filipino cooking doesn’t use actual lemons because lemons are not indigenous to the Philippines. We have our own version of lemon, it is called the Kalamansi. But I’m cooking in NY! So okay, let’s cook with lemons! Why not?

13 Responses to “Grilled Whole Tilapia – the Filipino Way (and how to clean out fish guts!)”
  1. This looks absolutely divine! Whenever I see grilled fish I am always reminded of the dating days with my husband. He lived not too far away from an Asian Market in Daly City, Ca called Ranch 99. After work or school/or both (we attended the same college at the time) we would go to the market and pick out a fresh fish (Tilapia, to be exact); have it cleaned and then fried. Back in his apartment, I would make a typical Filipino-style salad–with tomatoes, garlic, onions; seasoned with salt and fresh ground pepper to be eaten with the gorgeous fried fish that awaited us. He, in turn, would cook the rice as I taught him how (My husband is French but with a strong knowledge of the Asian culture). Having this meal with him each time meant the world to me because he ate that Tilapia with the salad and white rice as if he was a true Pinoy himself 🙂

    Thank you so much for sharing, as it brought back such a fond memory for me.

  2. Very informative. I gotta try adding lemons on my grilled tilapia recipe 🙂 Thanks for posting!

  3. lulu says:

    Wow! My son and I are trying your recipe. I love recipes that are short and sweet. We usually grill and add a little salt and pepper and wrap it in foil.

  4. Liana says:

    Is there anything that I could substitute for soy sauce that is soy & dairy free? We have some allergies in our family.

  5. Daniel Newton says:

    There’s really nothing disgusting or gross about cleaning the fish. This is a natural process.

  6. pinoymom says:

    Thank you for this recipe! So simple and healthy. Not pretentious at like. Like the way it should be… simple. thank you again.

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  3. […] Grilled Whole Tilapia – Cooking with Stellaaa – Sep 18, 2012  · Grilled Whole Tilapia … Very informative. I gotta try adding lemons on my grilled tilapia recipe 🙂 Thanks for posting! Reply. lulu says: January 5, … […]

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