Spicy Lemon Chili Tilapia

This Spicy Lemon Chili Tilapia is a delicious mix of tart, sweet, and spicy. It is a quick and flavorful dish that is perfect for a busy weeknight meal or a leisurely weekend one.


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!

Spicy Lemon Chili Tilapia

5 from 2 votes
Print Pin Rate
Prep Time: 5 minutes
Cook Time: 30 minutes
Total Time: 35 minutes
Servings: 2
Author: Shashi
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


  • Place the Meyer lemon slices in a pan with the olive oil, sprinkle with the salt and sugar and let cook over a low flame for 12-15 minutes
  • Meanwhile, mix the cayenne, cumin, and paprika and coat the tilapia with this spice rub
  • 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.
  • Add in the olives
  • Then take tilapia and olives and lemon out of the pan and place on a plate
  • 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 it with cilantro.
  • Serve with rice or naan


Serving: 1g | Calories: 452kcal | Carbohydrates: 12g | Protein: 45g | Fat: 26g | Saturated Fat: 5g | Polyunsaturated Fat: 21g | Cholesterol: 97mg | Sodium: 738mg | Fiber: 2g | Sugar: 8g
DID YOU MAKE THIS RECIPE?Tag @SavorySpin or tag #savoryspin so we can share your ceation.

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  1. Oh man, this looks so flavorful and spicy! I love it! Preserved lemons are phenomenal, but what you did with your lemons sounds amazing!

  2. Preserved lemons are used a lot more in North African cooking. ME cooking uses some, but they actually like to use dried limes more. You know, preserved lemons are just the same lemons that go into Indian lemon pickles, that’s the base before the masala is mixed in. My mom would make tonnes of preserved lemons and they would eventually end up in achaar. I make them now but for my Moroccan dishes. If you’re looking for them, Whole Foods does carry some in a jar.
    Anyway, this fish and those flavours….wow. Looks pretty amazing!
    You know I was born in Saudi, lived there for 6 yrs, but I’ve had family in the ME for generations now. ME food is probably the 2nd or 3rd most eaten cuisine at my house. Over the years Ive learnt to make most of it 🙂

    1. Nazneen – I LOVE Indian lemon and lime pickles – I had no idea that preserved lemons were the same thing pre-masala! Thanks to you – I learned something new tonight! Now, I remember having dishes with dried limes – just never preserved lemons – I am going to look for them at Whole Foods – and then I might have to stalk out your blog to find any curries with them – hope you don’t mind. 🙂
      I remember you mentioning being born in Saudi awhile back – and, I see the ME influence in a lot of the dishes you post! My mom’s cooking was mostly Sri Lankan and Indian – we didn’t really cook much ME food – but we did enjoy it at restaurants and friends places, so, anything ME totally fascinates me and brings back memories!

  3. It looks so flavourful! Made some preserved lemons years ago and I had no idea what I wanted to do with them and at the end they ended up in the bin.

  4. Oh goodness I can only imagine the flavour explosion that this dish would create…nicely done, Shashi! Love how simplistic dish looks too..clean eating at its finest :)!

  5. Oooo, I discovered preserved lemons a few months ago and have fallen in love with them! This spicy rub sounds fabulous for marinating proteins. Yum!

    1. Yes, yes you must – the quickie version I tried as suggested by Cooking Light magazine added so much flavor to this – it was incredible!
      Thanks so much Alanna

    1. Thanks so much Erin! Another blogger mentioned that Whole Foods had preserved lemons – am gonna prowl the shelves there till I get my hands on some

  6. Sometime last year, I stumbled across preserved lemons on a fresh ingredient bar at a nice grocery store in the area. I totally stopped and looked at them and was all like, “Hello. Who are you.” The answer was, “We’re preserved lemons. And you should eat us.” Sadly, I ignored the advice, but now I need to give them a shot. This tilapia looks insanely delicious, Shashi! Oh, to be your neighbor…

    1. That inner voice cannot be ignored! I cannot tell you the number of times I’ve chosen to dismiss mine only to find myself screeching on the brakes – literally! Like the other day, I was driving home and that inner voice said “get off the hwy here and take back-roads home” and I said “booyah” and guess what – miles and miles of brakes around the corner!!! Grrr!
      Thanks David – gosh I went way off topic with my answer!!!

    1. Wait – you have a “tagine” – have you used it yet? Did I miss a post where you did – if so my apologies – I’ve seen them – but never used one – ooh am so curious!
      Btw – thanks so much sweet lady!

  7. Ohmigosh, this sounds so good. <3 I've never tried preserved lemons, but I love what you did with yours! 😀 Yay for flavor explosions galore!

  8. I’m such a big fan tilapia, it’s a great fish. I love that you cooked it with preserved lemons, one of my fave ingredients. This recipe is going in my to-cook list. Thanks for sharing my friend!

    1. Thank YOU, Mike!
      I really need to find me a jar of preserved lemons – unless you make your own – in which case – yes, please – I will take one gladly 🙂

  9. Shashi, this looks incredible and so full of flavor! Tilapia is one of my favorite fish to cook with. I’ve never come across preserved lemons before either so will definitely try your method – love that you used chili garlic sauce in here too!

  10. Yum!! The way you described this and all of the aromas has my mouth watering!! I wondered if it was hard to make preserved lemons – sounds like something I could do!!

  11. Okay I honestly could live off fish everyday and I am ALWAYS looking for new ways to make it…this spicy lemon chili sounds so yummy! Pinning!

  12. I love this dish Shashi, and your method of cooking the lemons to sub for the preserved is fantastic. I can’t get over how wonderful this looks, it’s literally jumping out of the screen and begging to be made. This is fantastic it looks so flavorful.

  13. My hub will be a big big fan of you, if you served this to him. All the layer of flavors are just so darn captivating..it’s a party in a pan.
    I hear you when you talk about missing a few little details about a cuisine. It’s a constant learning curve everyday with everything.
    Middle eastern cuisine is something I enjoy and haven’t dealt a lot with. My tagine needs to be put to use, I might try this one. First, I need to learn the proper way to preserve lemon. Thanks a ton for my weekend project idea. Will let you know how that goes.
    Have a superb weekend, hugs to you my dear.

  14. Wow! Love this dish, Shashi! What an amazing combination of flavors! We love tilapia and your spiced up version is just the ticket! Great post!

  15. 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!!!

  16. 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

  17. 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.

  18. This is one of the best things I have eaten in a while. I used regular lemons and Sriracha and it is still delicious! Briny, spicy and full of flavor, this is now my favorite fish dish.

5 from 2 votes (1 rating without comment)

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