Tilapia the Lord would have eaten
Capernaum was a humble Jewish fishing village of some 10,000 to 15,000 simple folk. When Jesus arrived there from Nazareth, he chose as his first disciples four Galilean fishermen: Simon (nicknamed Peter), Andrew, James and John. Located at a crossroads on the main highway through Galilee, Capernaum was the perfect community from which stories of Jesus’ miracles and healings could be told to travelers who would carry His messages throughout the countryside.
The lifeblood of this region was fishing. During the 1st century A.D., more than a dozen small fishing harbors were located along the Galilean seashore. Its fishermen caught mostly three groups of fish: sardines, barbels and mushts (the largest, most important group). The Tilapia Galilea, also known as St. Peter’s Fish, is the best known of the musht group.
Here’s how that particular Tilapia got its name. During Jesus’ time, every Jewish man over 20 had to pay a half-shekel temple tax annually. It covered expenses such as the cost of daily burnt offerings. In Matthew 17:27, Jesus instructed Peter, “…go to the sea, drop in a hook, and take the first fish that comes up. Open its mouth and you will find a coin worth twice the temple tax. Give that to them for me and for you.” The fish that Peter pulled up was the Tilapia Galilea.
With Jesus’ earthly ministry set against the backdrop of fishing along the Sea of Galilee, fish and faith became intertwined. The ixtheus — the sacred fish symbol, as old as Christianity itself — became a powerful sign of faith. It signifies Iesous Christos Theou Yios Soter or Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior. It became a code among early Christians identifying their belief in Christ’s divinity, and was also found in Roman catacombs and early churches.
By weaving the life experiences of the fishermen into His parables, narratives and metaphors, Jesus ensured they would better understand His teachings. And it was through the Galilean fishermen that the Word of God spread throughout the world.
In 2013, I had the privilege of a pilgrimage to Israel with biblical scholar Jeff Cavins. After crossing the Sea of Galilee in a replica firstcentury fishing boat, on the opposite shore we traveled to a restaurant serving tilapia. Before leaving, I humbly asked, and received from the chef, two whole tilapia ready to be roasted. The next morning, a small group of fellow travelers accompanied me as I cooked the fish over a wood fire on the seashore – much as Christ did for His Apostles. This was a pivotal moment in my relationship with God – it was right there that I realized and embraced the fact that we are all called to be fishers of men.
CHEF JOHN D. FOLSE is an entrepreneur with interests ranging from restaurant development to food manufacturing, catering to culinary education. A cradle Catholic, Chef Folse supports many Catholic organizations including the Sister Dulce Ministry at Cypress Springs Mercedarian Prayer Center in Baton Rouge, LA.
Grilled Whole Tilapia
Prep Time: 30 Minutes
Yields: 1 Serving
1 (1½-pound) whole tilapia, scaled, cleaned, gills removed, head and tail intact
pecan wood or other wood chips for smoking
2 tbsp. chopped tarragon
2 tbsp. chopped basil
2 tbsp. chopped thyme
¼ cup olive oil, divided
salt and black pepper to taste
granulated garlic to taste
½ lemon, thinly sliced and divided
2 tbsp. chopped parsley
Preheat grill to medium-high heat according to manufacturer’s directions. Add wood chips for additional flavor (my favorite is pecan wood). Coat inside of a grill basket with nonstick cooking spray; set aside. Using a paring knife, create long, diagonal slits at 2-inch intervals on both sides of fish. In small bowl, combine all herbs and mix well. Set aside. Drizzle cavity of fish with 1 tablespoon olive oil then season generously with salt, pepper and granulated garlic. Stuff cavity with half of herb mixture along with 2 slices of lemon. (You may wish to stuff cavity with whole herbs as desired.) Rub outside of fish with remaining olive oil, season generously with salt, pepper and granulated garlic, working all into slits as well as head and tail. Stuff slits with remaining herb mixture. Place fish in greased grill basket over fire. Close grill lid and cook 8–10 minutes or until fish is cooked through, when flesh becomes flaky — touched with a fork. Carefully turn fish over at 3-minute intervals during the grilling process. To serve, place fish on a decorative platter and garnish with remaining lemon slices and chopped parsley.