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Most, if not all Thais have probably eaten Tilapia before. Tilapia, or pla nil, can be considered the fish most suitable for the Thai economy; mass produced in a closed farming system, a sturdy, durable fish (often bred conveniently in baskets along the rivers), available constantly and quickly due to its growth rate, affordable, and overall nutritious.

Pla nil is also the fish that nearly seven decades ago, helped villagers in rural areas avoid starvation and malnutrition. Today, it’s helping agriculturalists and farmers make a living, around 220,000 tons of pla nil are produced per year by 300,000 farmers countrywide. The fish is among the leading exported fish in Thailand.

Unsurprisingly, it was King Bhumibol Adulyadej that introduced the species to Thailand in 1966, hoping to ensure his people would never go hungry. The story goes that His Majesty, having been first given a few Tilapia by the Crown Prince of Japan in 1965, raised them like family, and put an enormous effort in breeding the fish. The late King put alot of time to  research and experiment with the tilapia species’ biology and breeding habits. Pla nil reproduces only once a year, but gave birth every three months. It was easy to raise (they are mouthbrooders- meaning the female fish incubates the eggs in their mouth) and within six months of hatching, the young fish were already a good size to eat or sell.

The late King also learned that pla nil could grow in closed fresh water systems like aquacultures or rice fields, and he believed the fish could be raised in rice fields during plantation season so farmers and their families would have access to a wholesome food source. Before this time, villagers and farmers were poor and often had nothing to eat. To put simply, the mass Thai populus literally lives on this fish.

The perception among most in town is that Pla nil is the fish for the middle-class and the poor, who might see no need getting freshwater fish, which can be quite expensive. However there is little difference in quality. Pla nil is a fish with a large amount of meat and few bones, it’s is a cooking ingredient for various dishes.

Unfortunately, a lot of people dislike pla nil, and believe the fish lacks taste and has a muddy aroma as a result of being harvested in ponds and farms, although such a widespread belief has never been proven. The muddy smell actually arises from the fish itself, just like other types of farmed fish such as pla salit, striped snakehead fish, pla krai and especially catfish that usually stay and feed themselves in the mud. Yet no one despises these fish or think they smell bad.

Have you tried pla nil?


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