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A Tilapia Ranch in the Middle of Yucatán

Tik en Xic on the Grill
Tik en Xic on the Grill

My wife and I just returned from a great trip to Chelem, Yucatán, where we visited our good friends Jeff and Nancy Gerlach. Nancy was my coauthor on ten books, and when she retired, they decided to sell everything they had in Albuquerque and move to their favorite spot on earth. Like Baja California Sur, the state of Yucatán is far removed from all the violence associated with the narcotraficantes who operate mostly in the central and northern parts of the country. In fact, the most violent thing we saw was one of the Gerlach’s cats, Mixo (pronounced “Misho”), climbing up a tree to catch a lizard.

One day we took a 2-hour car trip to Rancho Santa Cruz, owned by Gil and Cristie Romero, which is halfway between Cancún and Mérida. They grow habaneros, neem trees, and and tilapia. The neem trees produce an oil which is used in lotions and cosmetics—and also as a type of insecticide which repels the bugs rather than killing them instantly. The tilapia are grown in large tanks and are eventually sold to restaurants.

For lunch, Christie and her helpers served us Tik en Xic, a Maya specialty where the fish are covered with a paste of recado rojo (made of achiote, or annatto), then placed in banana leaves and grilled. They are served with an habanero salsa. The trip was a fascinating experience, especially when we saw a coatimundi cross the road in front of us. And lunch, with a recipe below, was delicious.

Tilapia Tik en Xic

Tik en Xic

1 tilapia fillet per diner

1 cup Recado Rojo (recipe follows)

1 cup orange juice

1/2 cup water

1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice

1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons vinegar

2 cloves garlic, chopped

1 medium onion, sliced

1 medium tomato, sliced

1 large tomato, chopped

Habanero Salsa (recipe follows)

Salt to taste

Banana leaves for grilling

Marinate the tilapia fillets in mixture of Recado Rojo, orange juice, water, lemon juice, vinegar, and garlic for 1 hour. Cover the fish with the slices of onion and chopped tomato, and then lightly salt the fish. Start the grill and place each fillet on a banana leaf.

Place the fillets fish down on the grill, covered with a banana leaf and grill for about five or six minutes, and then flip them so the banana leaves are on the bottom. Grill for another five or six minutes, then flip again the brown the fillets until done.

Serve with the Habanero Salsa to spice them up.

Yield: one fillet per person

Heat Scale: Varies to taste

Recado Rojo

(Red Seasoning Paste)

Here is a classic Yucatán seasoning paste From Jeff and Nancy Gerlach, who comment: “This is the most popular of all the different recados and is very typical of Yucatán. It is used to add both flavor and color to foods, and is most commonly used for pibils, or stewed pork dishes. The red color comes from the annatto seeds, which also add a unique flavor to this tasty paste.

4 tablespoons ground annatto seeds

1 tablespoon dry oregano, Mexican preferred

10 whole black peppercorns

1/2 teaspoon salt

1 1-inch stick cinnamon

4 whole cloves

2 whole allspice berries

1/2 teaspoon cumin seeds

3 cloves garlic, chopped

3 tablespoons distilled white vinegar

Place the annatto, oregano, peppercorns, salt, cinnamon, cloves, allspice, and cumin in a spice or coffee grinder and process to a fine powder. Add the remaining ingredients and grind to a thick paste, adding a little water if mixture is too thick.

Allow to sit for an hour or overnight to blend the flavors.

Yield: 1/2 cup

Habanero Salsa

5 habanero chiles, stemmed, seeded and finely chopped

Juice of two limes

1 tablespoon olive oil

1 teaspoon crumbled dried Mexican oregano

1/2 teaspoon salt

Combine all ingredients in a bowl and mix well.

Yield: 1/3 cup

Heat Scale: Hot

AboutDave Dewitt

Dave is known in the media as "The Pope of Peppers" because of the 36 books he's written on chile peppers and spicy food around the world. He's also co-producer of the National Fiery Foods & Barbecue Show and editor and publisher of the Fiery Foods & Barbecue SuperSite at www.fiery-foods.com. His latest book, with chile breeder Dr. Paul Bosland, is The Complete Chile Pepper Book.

1 Comment

  1. […] It has been several years since the first tilapia ranch began in Yucatan. Most thought the above-ground ponds quite odd and wondered if much would come of it. They didn’t take the skill of the Yucateco fish farmers into account, nor the ease of growing this hearty fish. More than a few expats include tilapia regularly in their diets. Today, Yucatan producers keep a steady supply of tilapia headed out for export and Yucatan tilapia has actually made it to the web pages of MexGrocer.com. This week, MexGrocer has published a great tilapia recipe in a very nice little article by Dave Dewitt, recent visitor, along with his wife, to Chelem. While they were in Yucatan, they visited a tilapia ranch and wrote about their experience. Dave’s article and recipes can be found on MexGrocer. […]

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