Story and photos By Chef Dino Datu
It seems that kilawin has been with us even before the Spanish came. It is said that kilaw comes from the word hilaw or raw, showing our ancestors’ love for fresh fish and meats. This may also be their way of “washing” fish and meats in order to sanitize them. I imagine native fishermen and hunters would skin their catch at once, bone and slice the flesh into bite-sized pieces, and then “wash” them in salt and vinegar in order to sanitize and preserve their food. This basic formula of salt and vinegar or citrus or a mix of both, together with other basic ingredients like ginger, chilies and onions, still make up our kilawin today.
Kilawin has been getting a lot of attention lately. So much so that in a trip to Spain for Madrid Fusión in 2015, the Philippine delegation served kilawin to an astonished crowd of the best chefs in the world. Legendary food writer Doreen Fernandez also sings high praises for kilawin, considering it the most Filipino dish and even writes a book on it (Kinilaw: A Philippine Cuisine of Freshness, 1991). Sadly, although we are familiar with kilawin in its many forms, I wouldn’t say I’ve had any that was great. Most versions I’ve tried fully cook the fish in acid, departing from its primary intention of enjoying fresh fish, barely cooked, soft and sweet. You often see fish kilawin as white slices of fish in white liquid with a few slices of onion and sili. This “whiteness” means that the fish has been fully cooked, so much so that all its juices have mixed with the acid, turning the flesh and the liquid white. It could be because it is difficult to keep fish fresh so it is washed and soaked in an acidic solution to prolong its life. But maybe it has more to do with people not wanting to eat things raw. This could be an American influence, not wanting to eat raw fish or meat. So it’s quite ironic that they seem to have “discovered” the benefits of raw food in recent years.
For my version of kilawin, I decided to mix acids, citrus and vinegar. I like the sharpness of a good coconut or cane vinegar with the freshness, the smell and slight “sweetness” that citrus fruits can bring. I am giving a basic recipe for kilawin. You may, of course, add, subtract and replace as you please. The curing times depend on the doneness you prefer, but whatever you do, please do not overcook the fish and seafood! Leave a bit of room for texture and sweetness. If you want it fully cooked, then don’t kilaw, just paksiw!
- Fresh fish, skinned, boned and sliced (tuna, dilis, tanigue, salmon)
- Fresh oysters
- Fresh shrimps, peeled and deveined
For the “cooking” solution
- 1 cup coconut or cane vinegar
- 1/2 cup dayap juice
- 1 tsp dayap rind
- 1 tbsp chopped ginger
- 1 red onion, sliced thinly
- salt and siling labuyo to taste
Mix “cooking” solution ingredients in a bowl and use to soak fresh seafood for a few minutes.