September 27, 2018: We did it. We crossed from the southern Philippines to Borneo and checked in with no drama. Now we’re busy exploring Kota Kinabalu and looking forward to seeing more of Sabah. Yes, we miss the Philippines after spending nearly six years there, but it really was time for a change or we might never have left.
Aside from the many great friends we met there, beautiful anchorages and stellar diving, one of the other things I’ll probably miss most of all is kinilaw.
I’ve mentioned kinilaw (and its close twin kilawin) in half a dozen blog posts over the last few years, but this dish deserves a post all its own as our last homage to the Philippines. I’m sure I’ll keep on making it again and again for years to come. It makes a refreshing appetizer or a light meal, and goes down especially well on hot days in the tropics.
But what is it? I’m glad you asked.
Basically, kinilaw is a dish similar to ceviche, with one big difference. Ceviche is traditionally “cooked” with lime. Kinilaw is “cooked” with vinegar instead. Fresh calamansi juice (from the small, green, sour fruit found in many parts of SE Asia, but especially renowed in the Philippines) is added after the cooking process to give the dish a sour flavour, and the dish is seasoned with fresh ginger, onions, chilis, salt and pepper. Optional ingredients are many and varied, but coconut milk is often added too.
The most popular variation is raw fish kinilaw, but some regional variations include meat too (although usually the meat is lightly cooked first). I’m a purist, I guess. I only like fish kinilaw. From what I understand, the dish is called kinilaw in the Visayas and kilawin in Luzon. Either way, fish kinilaw is super yummy when it’s super fresh.
Shhhh. Don’t tell anyone, but I think I may even prefer kinilaw over ceviche. Maybe it’s the ginger.
For kinilaw, as with ceviche, the most important ingredient is fresh fish. My favourite variation is made with fresh dorado, otherwise known as mahi-mahi. Tanigue (Spanish Mackerel) also works well if it’s super fresh and the dark bits of meat are cut off. Otherwise, I find it kind of overpowering. However, you can use whatever firm, fresh white or pink fleshed fish you can lay your hands on. I’ve tried it with jack, yellowfin tuna and even BC snapper. I like to see what is freshest at the market. Don’t buy more that what you plan to eat in one sitting, as kilawin is best eaten freshly made.
Do you see a trend here? Fresh, fresh, fresh!
The second most important ingredient is vinegar. Vinegar is a staple in Filipino cuisine and the distilled white vinegar that we are used to in North America doesn’t really cut it. I prefer to use one of the various Filipino vinegars, which are usually made from sugar cane, palm or coconut. I like the vinegar with the pineapple on the bottle.
Luckily, kinilaw is easy to make, so I won’t have to go without it for too long. Here’s how it’s done. Sorry, I haven’t included amounts. I like to wing it.
- Prep fish. Be sure to pull out any bones, cut off all the skin and cut off any dark bits of flesh unless you like strong fish flavour. Rinse fish and cut into small cubes. Place cubes in a stainless bowl.
- Cover fish cubes with cane vinegar and “cook” in the fridge for 20 minutes. Fish will turn a white-ish colour. Drain. (Some variations of kiliwan are served virtually floating in vinegar. I don’t like it this way, but maybe that’s just me. Do whatever makes you happy.)
- Add finely chopped red onion, lots and lots of fresh ginger, red chilis and jalapeno. In case you haven’t already guessed it, I like to add extra ginger.
- Season with salt and pepper. This is not the time to skimp on salt because you have high blood pressure. Add enough salt to taste it or you’ll regret it, despite whatever your doctor has told you. You can make up for it by cutting out salt from everything else you eat.
- Optional: Add chopped tomatoes and cucumber (no seeds). These add colour and texture to the dish. You could also add a bit of diced daikon (the long white radish found throughout SE Asia) if you wanted to add some extra crunch. I think avocado would also work, but I haven’t tried that yet. Maybe next time.
- Squeeze some fresh calamansi over everything to give a sour flavour to the dish. Calamansi fruit has a ton of seeds, so it’s best to squeeze them into a separate bowl first and dig out the seeds before adding. (Fun food trivia. It seems the small calamansi fruit is most probably a hybrid between a Mandarin orange and a kumquat. They turn orange when they are ripe and are much sweeter, but you want to use the sour green ones instead. If you can’t find calamansi, you can substitute with lemon or lime, but it won’t be quite the same.) (More fun food trivia. Hot calamansi juice served with honey is a Filipino cold remedy.)
- Add a small amount of coconut cream, about three tablespoons worth. The coconut cream is also optional but adds to the flavour and gives the dish a creamier texture.
- Mix well. Drain again.
I like to serve kinilaw on a bed of lettuce, ring it with slices of cucumber and grind more fresh pepper over the top. You can serve it as is, but I like it chilled, so I usually pop it in the fridge for a half hour or so before serving.
That’s basically all there is to it. It really is an easy dish to make once the fish prep is out of the way. Enjoy!
I will certainly miss finding kilawin and kinilaw on the menu and asking what fish they make it with. But on a positive note, apparently Malaysia has its own variations. In Sabah, where we are now, it’s called hinava. Further south in Sarawak, it’s umai. We haven’t tried hinava yet, but you can bet I’ll be on the lookout for it every time we’re out.
All this blogging about kinilaw is making me hungry. I think it’s about time for a trip to the fish market.