When the temperature in summer increased, I was immediately attracted by cold, refreshing food. One of my favorite hot weather dishes is any dish that features raw fish, including crudo, poke, ceviche, and a Filipino dish called Kinilaw. In this native Filipino dish, seafood is "cooked" with vinegar. This is a celebration of the purity of the ingredients, because lightly cooking them in acid allows their quality and freshness to shine.
Here, I want to share the kinilaw version that is closest to my indigenous heritage. My family comes mainly from the Visayan region in the central part of the Philippines. The area is made up of several islands, so seafood and coconuts dominate-kinilaw is abundant. This is everything you need to make at home.
What is Kinilao?
Indigenous Filipinos have been making kinilaw for thousands of years. The list of ingredients is very small: fresh protein with vinegar, and perhaps some fragrances. As with many Filipino dishes, the version of kinilaw you receive depends on your location. In coastal areas, kinilaw is made from seafood, including fish, shrimp, scallops, clams, sea urchins, and sea cucumbers. In inland areas, it can be made with pork, beef, wild boar, and deer. The vinegar used in the dishes is also different. I used raw coconut vinegar in this recipe because I felt it was more accessible to my ancestors.
There are also differences among other ingredients. Onions, ginger, and peppers are commonly used as spices, and some versions include sliced green mango, radish, star fruit, bitter gourd, or tamarind. Region-specific bark, nuts and fruits will also be incorporated. Personally, I like to use a simple aromatic base of red onion, ginger and bird's eye chili, and season it with a pinch of salt and black pepper. I also added calamansi juice to bring some sourness and brightness.
The best vinegar for Kinilaw
Essential to the preparation of kinilaw is vinegar. Vinegar (or “suka” in tagalog) was a culinary staple in pre-colonized Philippines and forms the base of many Filipino dishes like adobo. Coconut or cane vinegar is commonly used in kinilaw — I use coconut vinegar here because it was likely one of the most common vinegars found in Visayas. Before you begin, make sure to taste your vinegar — there should be no off odors or flavors.
Prepping the fish for Kinilaw
You’ll begin by marinating the aromatics in a mixture of calamansi and coconut vinegar while you prepare the fish. Cube the fish into bite-sized pieces — I like to use sashimi-grade yellow fin tuna, Spanish mackerel, or raw shrimp — then “wash” the fish with vinegar before adding it to the aromatics. The washing process involves letting the fish sit in the vinegar for two minutes, stirring, then straining. When buying fish or shellfish be sure to buy sashimi-grade or the freshest fish possible. Make sure there are no off odors or colors. You’ll want to prepare the kinilaw within 24 hours of purchasing your fish.
Even though “washing” the fish suggests it’s unclean (and many food blogs perpetuate this idea by claiming this step washes away fishy odors), the authors of Kinilaw, A Philipipine Cuisine of Freshness say washing adds the first layer of flavor and helps preserve the freshness of the fish.
When you’re done washing the fish, add it to the aromatics, season with salt and pepper, and let sit in the refrigerator until it’s reached your desired doneness. The fish will firm up and cook the longer it sits, so opt for less time (10 minutes) if you prefer tender fish, and more time (one hour) if you prefer firmer fish. “Cook” times will vary depending on what fish or seafood you use, so check it periodically so you can take it out of the fridge when it reaches your preferred texture.
How to serve Kinilaw
If you like, you can drizzle the kinilaw with a little coconut milk before serving, which will soften the sharp vinegar flavors. Enjoy as is or with rice. Serve as an appetizer or side dish — and don’t forget the ice-cold beers.