Inside that styropor package from General Santos City were packs of frozen high-grade tuna cubes. I knew already what to do with this tuna, and the first one that came in my mind was, of course, kinilaw. And the Kinilaw the way I wanted.
After dinner in Hukad, I ran to the supermarket to buy the needed “panakot” (spices) since I do not stock a lot at home. I bought some onions, ginger, green tomatoes and chillies. Unfortunately, the star of all spices Calamansi, the local lime was out of stock. Kinilaw will never be a kinilaw without this ubiquitous small sour fruit. Instead, I bought some lemon as a replacement. Back in Hukad, I secretly packed some unused Calamansi in our sawsawan. This can do the trick as long as there is a few calamansi.
How to prepare:
1 regular pack high-grade tuna cubes, thawed in running tap water still covered with the plastic packaging
1 large size red onion, diced
1 large size ginger, diced
3 Tbsp calamansi juice
Juice of one small size lemon
Vinegar for washing
½ cup apple cider vinegar
Salt and pepper to taste
Combination of sliced cucumber, green mangoes and raddish to add texture and flavor
1. Drain and remove excess water from the thawed meat. The color should be reddish and the meat is firm yet supple. Tip: In thawing frozen fish meat, submerged the meat still intact with its packaging. Do not remove the plastic not until it is thawed.
2. Pour vinegar, mix and marinate quickly, this is to “wash” the meat and “sear” the flesh. Drain immediately and be careful not to “cook” the meat.
3. In a separate bowl, mix apple cider vinegar, juices from lemon and calamansi, salt and some pepper. Add the fish cubes, ginger and onions. Mix thoroughly. Add some cucumber, green mango, raddish or tomatoes if available or if preferred. Garnish with chillies and more calamansi or lemon wedges on the side. Serve immediately. (If you prefer coconut milk, you can add it up on this step.)
Kinilaw is a tradition in itself. According to my favorite book, Memories of Philippine Kitchen (p48), it is probably the oldest known cooking method used by early inhabitants of the Philippines. Archeological digs in Butuan City in Northern Mindanao have unearthed “edible discards” of fishbones and remains of a fruit called tabon-tabon from thousand of years ago. Today some regions in Visayas and Mindanao still use prehistoric fruits like the tabon-tabon and dungon to make kinilaw more edible.
Kinilaw is a dish of immediacy: it should be consumed the moment the products are harvested from the sea. Raw meats from the sea are mixed with tart vinegar dressing, lime and citrus juice, seasoned with ginger, onions and chillies. In Cebu, kinilaw here are seasoned with “tuno” or coconut milk.
In General Santos City where Tuna is abundant all throughout the year, kinilaw is the top-of-the-mind dish for freshly caught fish. The pinkish to reddish meat of tuna are sliced in small cubes or thin strips (like sashimi) and chilled. Spices are prepared separately in advance and guests will be the one to mix their own kinilaw. The philosophy here is: it should be mixed on the spot and eaten fresh, letting it stand bathed in vinegar and lime juices will destroy the fresh texture and flavor of tuna. Generals eat kinilaw the way Japanese eat their sashimi, it is fresh, dipped on spices and eaten raw.
If raw does not appeal you, you can prepare kinilaw ahead of time and let the vinegar “cooked” it. The cooked meat is firm, opaque and sometimes “hard” if it is marinated for longer period in vinegar.
You can add some wasabi paste in the mixture to give a different zing to the dish. Other souring agents like the kamias can be added, seaweeds, fiddlehead ferns, and fruits like turnips (jicama or singkamas) can also be added. Kinilaw as mentioned in my favorite book varies per region and season, so you can concoct your own kinilaw according to your liking.
I also use apple cider vinegar because I ran out of sukang puti. This gives a more fruity flavor to the kinilaw.
Kinilaw is best paired with beers and hard drinks. In fact, we ate this as “pulutan” with some rum on rocks. Great for bonding time.