This fried whole mojarra fish—so crispy good, with a big squeeze of lime—reminds Janeth Palacio Barrera of beach vacations back home. ”Whenever I go to Colombia to visit my family, before I come back to the States, we always go to the beach. To rest. To be with family.”
For Janeth’s familia, like so many in Colombia, vacations means sun, sea and garlicky pescado frito freshly caught that day. One of the most traditional kinds of fish to fry in Colombia is mojarra, which looks like, tastes like and is often called (but is not) tilapia. “When you are at the beach, it’s everywhere,” says Janeth, “You see it in all the restaurants. At all the markets. And it’s more affordable.”
There are more types of popular local pescados, of course, says Janeth, who is a Spanish teacher in Chicago, where she lives with her husband and two kids. Other favorites in Colombia include snapper and corvina. “If you go to a restaurant near the beach and ask for fish, they’ll bring you whatever came in on the fishing boats that day.”
Her mother loves fish., say Janeth. “My father would go buy it at the market, and my mom would make it a lot. And my mother eats the eyes, everything. She sucks out the head and all that is inside,” Janeth laughs. “She also puts it in caldos or soups, in consomés.”
But when vacación is over and her family goes home, fried-fish dinners—like days at the beach—are no more, says Janeth. “Every once in a rare while, my mother would make this recipe, but it wasn’t very common. Because we weren’t close to the sea and it is more expensive than other foods.”
Janeth is longing for her next trip to Colombia. Until then, she can keep an eye out for mojarra or tilapia to go on sale in Chicago. If the price is right, she will make pescado frito and cook her way home: back to the playa, verano and vacation. This family recipe takes her right back to memories felices of “vacations, la playa, being at the ocean with my family.”
If you make pescado frito for dinner, Janeth recommends pairing this dish with two popular, traditional Colombian sides: patacones con hogao—fried green plantain rounds with a zingy tomato sauce—and savory-sweet arroz con coco or coconut rice. For more of Janeth’s family recipes, check out her mom’s flan de leche and her husband’s Mexican family recipe for guacamole that lasts longer than any other recipe you’ve tried, promises Janeth.
Ready to Make Colombian-Style Fried Whole Fish?
Photos: Michelle Ezratty Murphy