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When the summer temps heat up, I’m immediately drawn to cold, refreshing food. One of my go-to hot-weather dishes is anything that features raw fish, including crudo, poke, ceviche, and a Filipino dish called kinilaw. In this indigenous Filipino dish, seafood is “cooked” with vinegar. It’s a celebration of the purity of the ingredients, because gently cooking them in acid lets their quality and freshness shine.
Here I’m sharing the version of kinilaw closest to my indigenous heritage. My family mostly comes from the region of Visayas, in the central part of the Philippines. This area consists of several islands, so seafood and coconuts reign supreme — and kinilaw is abundant. Here’s everything you need to know to make it at home.
Indigenous Filipinos have been making kinilaw for thousands of years. The ingredient list is minimal: a fresh protein plus vinegar, and maybe some aromatics. As is common with many Filipino dishes, the version of kinilaw you receive depends on where you are. In coastal areas, the kinilaw is made with seafood, including fish, shrimp, scallops, clams, sea urchin, sea cucumber, and more. In the landlocked regions, it can be prepared with pork, beef, wild boar, and deer. The vinegar used in the dish varies, too. I used raw coconut vinegar in this recipe because I felt it would have been more accessible to my ancestors.
Variations exist among the other ingredients, too. Onions, ginger, and chilies are often used as aromatics, and some versions include sliced green mango, radish, starfruit, bitter melon, or tamarind. Regionally specific barks, nuts, and fruits will also find their way into the mix. Personally, I like to use a simple aromatic base of red onion, ginger, and bird’s eye chiles and season everything with a little salt and black pepper. I also add calamansi juice to bring in some tart flavor 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.
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.