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Spicy Lemon Chili Tilapia


Sometimes, you feel you know a culture, or a cuisine, or even a person, and then you find yourself removed from said culture, or cuisine, or even person, and you realize – you knew bupkis!

Yup – I speak from experience…

I spent my teen years in the Middle East eating my way through falafel, Shawarma, Fatteh, and Taboule! I grew accustomed to the fasting and closing of all business during the afternoon hours and the feasting that followed in the breaking of the fasts! I thought that in the 8 or so years I lived there, I knew all I could about the culture and the cuisine in that part of the world.

But, boyoboy was I wrong….

Recently, I was thumbing through a Cooking Light magazine and came across a chicken recipe that used preserved lemons – not remembering crossing paths with said preserved lemons ever, I Googled them to find that they were quite prevalent in Middle Eastern Cuisine! In my 8+ years in the Middle East, preserved lemons had eluded me!


And, my curiosity was piqued!

I had to find them – but even after looking at some of the stores I go to for my more exotic ingredients – preserved lemons still eluded me!


The recipe in Cooking Light specified that preserved lemons could be substituted with fresh lemons cooked in a bit of salt, sugar and olive oil and so – since I had a small case of Meyer lemons, I figured I would use this method as a base for the spice sprinkled Tilapia that I had planned to cook… it wasn’t chicken, but, the joy of cooking is sometimes substitution – right? 🙂

Now…imagine the layers of flavors so far…

There’s the lemons mixing and mingling and coming alive with sugar and salt and olive oil…

And then there’s those succulent tilapia fillets – gently caressed with paprika, smoky cumin and spicy cayenne…


But – it doesn’t stop there!

Olives are thrown into this mix…


Yes there’s even more…

When the tilapia has cooked, soaking up the flavors of the sweetly tart lemons, the salty olives, the smoky spices…it is topped with a sauce made from Sambal Oelek and honey!


Sambal Oelek is somewhat similar to Sriracha in taste, but it is mostly just ground chili peppers (without the sugar, garlic, vinegar and xantham gum that Sriracha contains) – some say it’s less spicy than Sriracha, but, if one of those chili pepper flakes hit your taste buds at just the right angle – ooh – you will start sweating! My daughter got 1/2 of her daily requirement of water just in the few minutes it took her to eat this!

As this month’s Recipe Redux challenge was to make a “healthy dish (heated) up with smoke and/or spiciness”, I figured this dish met the challenge – this, tart and salty, simple and complex, sweet and oh so spicy tilapia!

[Tweet “Tart and salty, simple and complex, sweet and oh so spicy Lemon Chili Tilapia @RunninSrilankan”]

Spicy Lemon Chili Tilapia

Spicy Lemon Chili Tilapia

A tart, sweet, spicy, light and delightful tilapia


  • 3 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 Meyer lemon sliced
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon sugar
  • 1// teaspoon paprika
  • 1/2 teaspoon cumin
  • 1/2 teaspoon cayenne
  • 2 tilapia fillets
  • 3-4 tablespoons sliced black and green olives
  • 1 tablespoon sambol oelek
  • Cilantro for garnish
  • 2 teaspoons honey


  1. Place the Meyer lemon slices in a pan with the olive oil, sprinkle with the salt and suagr and let cook over a low flame for 12-15 minutes
  2. Meanwhile, mix the cayenne, cumin and paprika and coat the tilapia with this spice rub
  3. Place the tilapia into the lemon/sugar/salt mixture and turn heat up a tad - if needed add a tablespoon or so more olive oil. Let tilapia cook about 5-7 minutes (depending on thickness) and flip and let cook another 5 or so minutes till both sides are golden and fish is firm.
  4. Add in the olives
  5. Then take tilapia and olives and lemon out of the pan and place on a plate
  6. To the same pan, add the sambol oelek and honey and let mix together over a low flame for about 3-4 minutes. Spoon this over the tilapia and garnish with cilantro.
  7. Serve with rice or naan

Did you make this recipe?

Please leave a comment on the blog or share a photo on Instagram &/or Pinterest tagging @SavorySpin #SavorySpin


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Monday 2nd of February 2015

Preserved lemons are quite common at my house too, though I have to admit I don't make any. This tilapia looks fabulous. ME cusine is one of my favorite cuisines, I could survive on them, and this takes it to a notch above what I have tasted so far. Bookmarked.


Saturday 31st of January 2015

This seriously looks amazing! My mom was all about the tilapia, so I'm sure if I made this for her, she would be the happiest person ever :p

Stacy | Wicked Good Kitchen

Monday 26th of January 2015

Fabulous tilapia dish, Shashi! We all must start cooking with preserved lemons. I love everything citrus and spicy and cannot wait to try this recipe. Thanks so much for sharing! xo

Lindsey @ American Heritage Cooking

Sunday 25th of January 2015

I marked that same recipe in Cooking Light! I can't believe you lived there 8 years and never came across a preserved lemon! This tilapia looks fabulous! Love all the flavors and spice!

Bam's Kitchen

Saturday 24th of January 2015

Great flavors and beautiful looking fish dish. My boys would love this as it is spicy and might even want me to use even more of the cayenne pepper and spicy sambul. Sharing of course!!!