Why It Works
- Brining the pork belly yields juicy and flavorful meat.
- The acidity of the vinegar-based dressing complements the crunchy, fatty grilled pork belly.
Kilawin is a Filipino meat- and vinegar-based dish consisting of boiled and/or grilled meats, which can include goat, beef, pork, carabao (water buffalo), and deer or some combination thereof. It's characterized by layers of punchy, savory flavors and a the range of textures it can provide, from crunchy and chewy to tender and soft. My version calls for dressing marinated and grilled pork belly, known as inihaw na liempo in Tagalog, in a tangy sauce made with red onion, garlic, and sukang Iloko, a dark-hued vinegar made from sugar cane molasses.
Traditionally, kilawin incorporates papaít, or bile from the gallbladder of a cow or goat, which lends an astringent note (I’ve left the papaít out in this recipe; the dish shines regardless). In certain regions, locals mix in tofu or offal like pork ears, tripe, liver, or heart to add another layer of flavor and other textures. The flavor profile of this dish―a combination of umami, sour, and bitter―is a true reflection of the Filipino palate.
Kilawin is often confused with kinilaw (raw fish marinated in vinegar) since the names are used somewhat interchangeably depending on the region. This likely stems from the fact that both rely on vinegar―a ubiquitous ingredient that was historically used to preserve food―to flavor (and cook, in the case of kinilaw) the protein.
To make my kilawin, I suggest you prepare the pork belly the morning of your meal or preferably the day before, as it involves soaking chunks of pork belly in a seasoned brine for anywhere from a minimum of 6 hours to a full 24 hours. Once the pork belly has been marinated, you cook it over hot coals before slicing it up into bite-size pieces. For the zesty dressing, all you have to do is whisk together sliced onion, minced garlic, vinegar, salt, sugar, and a copious amount of freshly ground black pepper. Stir in the pork and then serve it on its own or along with white rice and your favorite cold beer and watch it disappear.
- For the Inihaw Na Liempo (Grilled Pork Belly):
- 1/2 cup (120ml) water
- 1/4 cup (60g) Diamond Crystal kosher salt; for table salt, use half as much by volume or an equal amount by weight
- 2 tablespoons (30ml) fresh lemon juice from 1 lemon
- 2 tablespoons (25g) sugar
- 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
- 2 pounds (910g) boneless, skin-on pork belly, cut into 2-inch-wide by 4-inch-long blocks
- For the Kilawin:
- 1 large red onion (about 10 1/2 ounces; 300g), thinly sliced
- 5 medium garlic cloves (25g), minced
- 1/2 cup (120ml) sukang Iloko vinegar (see note)
- 1 tablespoon (7g) freshly ground black pepper
- 2 teaspoons (8g) Diamond Crystal kosher salt; for table salt, use half as much by volume or an equal amount by weight
- 1 teaspoon (4g) sugar
- 1 scallion, thinly sliced on a bias, for garnish
For the Grilled Pork Belly: In a small bowl, whisk together water, salt, lemon juice, sugar, and black pepper until sugar is completely dissolved. Set aside.
Place pork belly in a gallon zipper-lock bag or large baking dish and pour marinade over the meat. Toss to evenly distribute the marinade, then seal bag, removing as much air as possible (if using baking dish, wrap tightly with plastic wrap). Transfer to refrigerator, and marinate for at least 6 hours and up to 24 hours.
Light 1/2 chimney of charcoal. When all the charcoal is lit and covered with gray ash, pour out and arrange the coals on one side of the charcoal grate. Set cooking grate in place, cover grill, and allow to preheat for 5 minutes. Alternatively, set half the burners on a gas grill to the highest heat setting, cover, and preheat for 10 minutes. Clean and oil the grill grates.
Remove pork belly from marinade, wipe off excess, and pat dry with paper towels; discard marinade. Cook pork directly over the hot side of the grill. If using a charcoal grill, leave uncovered; if using a gas grill, cover. Cook, turning occasionally, until pork is cooked through and lightly charred on all sides and the thickest part registers 155°F (68°C) on an instant-read thermometer, between 20 to 25 minutes (if a flare-up occurs, quickly move pork to cooler side of grill; once flare-up subsides, move pork back to hotter side of grill and continue to cook). Transfer to a cutting board and let rest for 5 minutes; slice pork belly into 1-inch-wide by 2-inch-long strips.
For the Kilawin: In a large bowl, add half of the sliced onion, garlic, vinegar, black pepper, salt, and sugar, and stir until sugar and salt have fully dissolved. Add pork and toss to evenly coat with dressing.
Transfer to serving platter or bowl, garnish with scallions and remaining sliced onion. Serve.
Sukang Iloko is a specialty vinegar hailing from the Ilocos Region on the island of Luzon in the northern Philippines. It's made with sugar cane molasses, a byproduct of the sugar refining process, which is mixed with native botanicals like the bark of the duhat tree (or Java plum tree) or fruits, and fermented in earthenware jars until it becomes a sweet wine called Basi. When the wine sours, it becomes a dark, almost-black vinegar with a touch of sweetness that tastes similar to sherry vinegar. You can find sukang Iloko at Filipino or Asian markets and online. The most popular brand is Datu Puti. If you can’t find sukang Iloko, you can substitute it with cane vinegar or distilled white vinegar.
Make-ahead and Storage
Kilawin can be refrigerated in an airtight container for up to 3 days. To reheat, preheat oven to 350°F (177°C). Transfer kilawin to a rimmed baking sheet lined with aluminum foil and reheat until hot, about 5 minutes. Alternatively, you can reheat in the microwave in 15-second intervals.