Mahi Mahi with Tahitian Vanilla Sauce

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Delicious Mahi Mahi with Tahitian vanilla sauce! The hearty fish is seared until golden brown and served with an amazing vanilla bean and coconut sauce. For a complete meal serve with sauteed vegetables and fragrant rice. 

Mahi Mahi with Tahitian Vanilla Sauce

This Mahi Mahi with Tahitian vanilla sauce will take your taste buds to a tropical destination! Jason and I have been fortunate to visit French Polynesia on more than one occasion, and each time we have the most fantastic fresh seafood. I was inspired to recreate one of our favorite mahi mahi recipes for our recent anniversary.

Mahi Mahi is a powerful deep-water fish with firm flesh and just the right texture to create stunning pan-fried or grilled recipes. The mild flavor of the fillets can be enjoyed with salt, pepper and a squeeze of lemon, or elevated with more intense seasonings or sauces. This Mahi Mahi recipe takes the authentic ingredients used in everyday cooking in Tahiti like vanilla beans, rum, coconut and, incredibly fresh fish for a simple yet elegant meal.

Fisherman in Vaitape, Bora Bora selling mahi mahi on the side of the road.

When Jason and I visited the small Polynesian island of Bora Bora for our babymoon, we grew very fond of Mahi Mahi fish which happens to be on the menu at almost every restaurant on the island. The local fisherman even sold beautiful fresh caught Mahi Mahi on the side of the road in Vaitape, which is the small central island downtown area of Bora Bora. Mahi Mahi can weigh between eight to twenty-five pounds!

We are happy that we can find some fresh fillets available at our local fish market. Mahi Mahi is a little on the pricier side, but worth the investment for a taste of this delicious meal. One of our favorite Polynesian traditional dishes is seared Mahi Mahi with vanilla sauce, and I’m excited to share this recipe with you!

Mahi Mahi fish fillets searing in oil on a cast iron skillet

Fish Selection

Mahi Mahi is usually sold in 4 to 8-ounce pre-portioned fillets. You can buy them fresh at a fish market or stores like Trader Joe’s sells them for a reasonable price frozen. It is thin-skinned with firm light pink flesh. It has a delicate flavor that is almost sweet and turns white when cooked. The fish is very easy to prepare, you just need to add a little bit of seasoning, and you are all set!

Pan Selection

A large 10 to 12-inch cast iron pan or stainless steel clad skillet will allow enough room to cook and fry the fish properly. The trick to beautiful coloring on a fillet is to start with a nice hot pan.

How to cook Mahi Mahi

Preheat your pan over medium-high heat for a few minutes until you can feel the heat rising from the pan. Add enough oil to coat about ⅛ of an inch, and then allow the oil to heat until almost smoking. Carefully add the fish to the pan, presentation side down, and gently press on the fillet with a spatula for a few seconds so the flesh can make direct contact with the hot surface.

This connection also helps release some of the moisture so the meat can brown evenly. After a few minutes, when the bottom becomes golden brown, the flesh will begin to release on its own with a little help from the spatula, if not give the fish a minute or two longer to cook. Flip and finish cooking, this recipe calls for about 3 to 4 minutes of cooking on each side.

Dinner plate with two pan fried mahi mahi fillets with Tahitian vanilla sauce and vegetables

Mahi Mahi only requires a few minutes of cooking before it gets dried out, so keep an eye on the time and firmness as it cooks so you can remove it from the pan quickly when it’s ready. Once you master this dry-heat cooking technique, try making grilled blackened Mahi Mahi tacos. They are so delicious!

Many of the dishes served in Bora Bora feature local island-inspired ingredients prepared with a hint of French gastronomy. Each meal always had some fresh sauteed vegetables served with tender grains.

Whenever I make this Mahi Mahi dish, I make sure to have colorful sides like squash, zucchini, carrots, and bell peppers and cook some coconut rice to soak up the extra sauce!

Mahi Mahi fish pan fried with crispy skin on a plate with steamed vegetables

This recipe includes a creamy Tahitian vanilla sauce. It is a reduction of coconut milk, cream, a little bit of chicken stock, a generous splash of rum for a sweet caramel flavor, and of course whole Tahitian vanilla beans. I always make sure to stock up on whole vanilla beans when we are in French Polynesia, as the prices are very high for just a few pieces.

For dessert, I would highly recommend pairing this dish with my Bora Bora coconut custard pie recipe if you are feeling inspired to make your meal a complete island experience.

Cooking with vanilla beans

The flavor of vanilla bean differs based on where they are grown. Vanilla orchid plant variety; Mexican, Madagascar Bourbon, Indonesian and Tahitian sources are most common. I like to use Tahitian vanilla beans because they have a floral aroma, fruity, and are more plump and bountiful with prized vanilla seeds. To use with cooking, split the pod lengthwise and lightly scoring the skin to unveil the seeds. Use a spoon or back of a knife to remove the seeds and add them to the recipe. I like to simmer the pods in the vanilla sauce because there are lots of residual flavors. I love how it adds tiny black speckles in sauces, creams, and desserts. One pod is about three teaspoons of vanilla extract.

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Mahi Mahi with Tahitian Vanilla Sauce

Pan seared Mahi Mahi with a creamy Tahitian vanilla bean sauce, a classic French Polynesian recipe made with rum and coconut.
4.91 from 30 votes
Prep Time10 minutes
Cook Time30 minutes
Total Time40 minutes
Servings 4 servings
Course Entree
Cuisine French


Mahi Mahi

  • 4 Mahi Mahi fillets
  • kosher salt, as needed
  • black pepper, as needed
  • 3 tablespoons olive oil

Vanilla Sauce

  • ½ cup dark rum
  • 1 vanilla bean, sliced open lengthwise
  • ¼ cup unsalted chicken stock
  • 1 cup heavy cream
  • 1 cup coconut milk
  • kosher salt, as needed


Vanilla Sauce

  • In a medium saucepan, add rum and vanilla bean. Heat over medium-high heat until reduced to about 2 tablespoons, 3 to 5 minutes.
  • Add the chicken stock, cream, and coconut milk and gently whisk to combine. Heat over medium-high heat and allow the mixture to reduce to about 1 cup, whisking continuously, about 15 minutes. The sauce should be thick enough to coat the back of a spoon and not too runny.
  • Turn off heat and carefully remove the vanilla bean from the sauce. Scrape seeds out of the vanilla pod and whisk into the sauce. Season with salt to taste. Rewarm the sauce before serving with the Mahi Mahi.

Seared Mahi Mahi

  • Season both sides of the Mahi Mahi fillets with salt and pepper.
  • In a large frying pan, heat the olive oil over medium-high heat until hot. Carefully add the Mahi Mahi to the pan and sear the fillets until they are golden brown, about 3 to 4 minutes.
  • Flip and cook an additional 3-4 minutes, until the flesh is opaque. Transfer to a serving plate and serve with warmed vanilla sauce.

Nutrition Facts

Serves: 4 servings
Calories 440kcal (22%)Carbohydrates 1gProtein 61g (122%)Fat 23g (35%)Saturated Fat 9g (45%)Polyunsaturated Fat 2gMonounsaturated Fat 10gCholesterol 154mg (51%)Sodium 513mg (21%)Potassium 27mg (1%)Fiber 0.1gSugar 0.03gVitamin A 400IU (8%)Vitamin C 0.2mgCalcium 280mg (28%)Iron 2.5mg (14%)

Percent Daily Values are based on a 2000-calorie diet. All nutritional information is based on estimated third-party calculations. Each recipe and nutritional value will vary depending on the brands you use, measuring methods, and portion sizes per household.

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Jessica Gavin

I'm a culinary school graduate, cookbook author, and a mom who loves croissants! My passion is creating recipes and sharing the science behind cooking to help you gain confidence in the kitchen.

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Reader Interactions

36 Comments Leave a comment or review

    • Jessica Gavin says

      Hi Jocelyn- You are so lucky to live in French Polynesia! My husband and I LOVE it there so much, I’m glad that I can bring some of the flavors of the islands back home with us. I hope you enjoy the recipe! Maururu!

      • Kolby Stewart says

        I am very EXCITED to make this! I am making it for our anniversary as we spent our honeymoon last year on Moorea. There was a dish there that was the Mahi Mahi with the curry banana, do you know how to make that? I am NOT a chef….so any recipe I can use is AWESOME, but I am having a hard time finding one. THANKS!

        • Jessica Gavin says

          I am so excited for you Kolby! I haven’t tried the curry banana, but I’ll keep an eye out. Tahitian recipes make me think of my husband and I’s honeymoon too! Congrats 🙂

    • Lynne Kaimuloa says

      Jocelyn, thank you for your hospitality! FYI, Jocelyn and her Tahitian hubby, “Smitty” do property management and told us all the hot spots in Huihine, too!

  1. Glenn says

    Made this dish this evening and it was phenomenal. Will definately become part of my repetoire. Thanks for sharing!

    • Jessica Gavin says

      You made my day Glenn! This recipe is a family favorite inspired by our trips to tahiti 🙂 So happy to hear you liked the recipe!

    • Jessica Gavin says

      Hi David! If you would like you can just substitute the milk and cream with more coconut milk or cashew or almond milk.

  2. Tehl Sherman says

    Hi! This sounds amazing! My husband and I just honeymooned in French Polynesia and loved this dish. We purchased Tahitian Vanilla Extract there. How much extract would I use instead of the vanilla beans?

    Thank you!

    • Jessica Gavin says

      Wow, I’m so envious that you just got back from French Polynesia! What islands did you go to? For every 2-inches vanilla bean is equivalent to about 1 teaspoon of vanilla extract. So I would add 2-3 teaspoons to the sauce. Start with 2 teaspoons and then add more as you like 🙂 Congrats!

    • Jessica Gavin says

      Yes, add between 1 to 3 teaspoons to taste. 1 vanilla bean pod equals about 3 teaspoons vanilla extract. Start with the low amount and add more so you can gauge the flavor. Let me know how it goes!

  3. Petra says

    It is the great ever sauce in Moorea fish dish!!! I was skeptical about it because I don’t like sweet sauces with dishes but was awesome! And I will try your receipt, absolutely!! Thank you!!

  4. Twila Sharp says

    I’ve made this multiple times. It’s a favorite of ours. When made for guests I usually encrust one side of the fish with macadamia nuts to elevate. Always a winner!

  5. Stasia says

    Just returned from a beautiful trip to Tahiti. Fell in love with the vanilla sauce for fish. Wanted to gift my friends with a recipe and was told to buy vanilla paste. How should I use vanilla paste in this recipe?

  6. Alyssa says

    I bought navy bay Jamaican dark rum. Was told it should work for it… I am going to try it tonight and hope for the best!!

  7. Mark says

    Jessica, thank you for this recipe. Have made it once before and it was amazing! The flavor, the aroma… was just heavenly! Last time I made this I only had plain basmati rice for a side, as this was a spur of the moment dinner choice. This time I am going to do a lavender rice, but also want to accompany it with something with a little spice. Any suggestions would be greatly appreciated.

    • Jessica Gavin says

      You’re welcome mark! I think just even a little salt would be nice, or you can add coconut milk or toasted coconut flakes on top of the rice. Some curry powder might also be nice for color and earthiness to complement the lavender.

  8. Laura says

    We just got back from Bora Bora and the French Polynesian Islands from our honeymoon. We dined at the Intercontinental and we’re served Mahi Mahi with the Vanilla bean sauce. I’m obsessed! We loved it.
    We live in a coastal town and can’t wait to experiment with the Vanilla bean we brought back! Tres Bien!

    • Jessica Gavin says

      Oh, Laura, I’m so jealous! I hope you enjoyed the island. The food and the people are so incredible. I can’t wait to hear what you think about the recipe, use up those amazing vanilla beans!

  9. Craig says

    Fantastic! After a couple bites, wife started listing people I could serve this to. Your picture looked so good, made the coconut rice and a summer squash sautee to try to match your accomplishment. Used vanilla paste (not the bean, but better than extract), almost embarrased that I used frozen Mahi filets from a Costco bag I always keep available in the freezer, and the only dark rum I had was Captain Morgan Black. Recipe excelled in spite of the alterations.
    Wonderful meal. Will be serving to truly fortunate guests.
    p.s. What’s the leaf you’re serving this on? Lovely presentation.

  10. Barb says

    Being diabetic my hubby and I should avoid the rice, do you have a suggested side dish lower in carbs? Excited to try this!!

  11. Meg says

    This recipe was fabulous! The vanilla sauce was wonderful. I made coconut rice using the left over coconut milk. Instead of Mahi I used Grouper, it would be good with any firm white fish. Thank you! This is the first review I have ever left because it was that outstanding!

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