Why It Works
- Marinating fresh tuna in spiced coconut vinegar quickly “cooks” the fish while also lending the dish background heat and allium aroma.
- Fresh lemon juice and zest add bright acidity, complementing the sharp bite of the coconut vinegar.
Kinilaw is a bright and tangy dish of raw fish marinated in vinegar that’s indigenous to the Philippines; you can think of it as a kind of ancient Filipino ceviche, one that celebrates the abundance of the seas surrounding the Philippine islands.
Both the dish and the marinating process, known as kilaw (“to cook in sourness”), are at least a thousand years old—Spanish explorers mentioned kilaw in texts dating back to 1613. Although kinilaw is quite similar in style and preparation to Central and South American ceviche, it uses vinegar rather than citrus juice as the primary acidic agent to denature, or quickly cook, the protein in fish flesh.
At its most basic, kinilaw is cubed raw fish tossed with vinegar—usually coconut or cane vinegar—and the flesh of a sour fruit like green mangoes and/or the juice of citrus fruit like calamansi or dayap, known in the US as key limes. The grated flesh of tabon-tabon, a bitter, brown fruit, and the bark scrapings of mangrove trees, which are also quite bitter, are sometimes added to offer a counterpoint to the dish’s punchy acidity. It’s then seasoned with salt and finished with aromatics such as black pepper, ginger, onions, and native chiles. Variations may include coconut milk, grated dungon (small young coconuts), or sugar to tame, all of which tame the overall tartness of the dish. You can even top kinilaw with grilled pork belly to make a dish called sinuglaw, a surf and turf variation popular in specific regions of the Philippines.
My version of this recipe is based on the one I learned while growing up in Iloilo, a province in the centrally-located Visayas region. Back then, we’d make our own coconut vinegar and let it steep with onions, ginger, garlic, black pepper, and chiles to make spiced vinegar known as sinamak. For the sake of convenience, and to accomplish what previously took us weeks, I now buy spiced coconut vinegar in a bottle at my local Filipino market. If you have that around, this kinilaw is exceedingly simple to make and produces a flavorful, refreshing dish that’s best enjoyed as an appetizer, and it’s especially good when paired with alcohol. I’ve included vibrantly sweet Ataulfo mango, creamy coconut milk, and peppery edible flowers for garnish as optional ingredients, but I strongly suggest you add them as they complement the sweet tomatoes, the pungent red onion, the fiery chiles, and of course the tart coconut vinegar marinade.
- 12 ounces (340g) sashimi-grade tuna, trimmed of sinew and cut into 1/2-inch cubes
- 12 ounces (340g) ripe plum tomatoes (about 3 tomatoes), cut into 1/2-inch dice
- 1 medium red onion (8 ounces; 225g), cut into 1/4-inch dice
- One 3-inch knob fresh ginger (30g), peeled and minced
- 2 fresh red or green Thai chiles, stemmed and minced (see note)
- 1/2 cup (120ml) spiced coconut vinegar (see note)
- 1 tablespoon (4g) finely grated lemon zest plus 1 teaspoon (5ml) juice from 1 to 2 large lemons
- 1 teaspoon (4g) Diamond Crystal kosher salt; for table salt, use half as much by volume or an equal amount by weight
- 1 medium Ataulfo mango (about 8 ounces; 225g), peeled, pit removed, and cut into 1/2-inch dice (optional)
- 2 tablespoons (30ml) full-fat coconut milk (optional)
- Thinly sliced chives or scallions, for garnish
- Edible flowers, for garnish (optional)
In a large non-reactive bowl, combine tuna, tomatoes, onion, ginger, chiles, vinegar, lemon zest, lemon juice, salt, mango (if using), and coconut milk (if using). Using clean hands or a spoon, gently fold until well combined. Cover and refrigerate for at least 3 minutes and up to 15 minutes.
Set a fine-mesh strainer inside a medium bowl, and drain fish mixture; discard excess liquid. Transfer kinilaw to a serving bowl, sprinkle with chives or scallions and edible flowers (if using), and serve immediately.
You can substitute Thai chiles with 1 jalapeño pepper.
Spiced coconut vinegar, also known as sinamak, can be found in Asian markets and online (it can also be labeled as pinakurat, which is an extra-spicy version). If you can’t find coconut vinegar, spiced cane vinegar is an acceptable substitute and can be found in Asian markets or online.
Make-ahead and Storage
Kinilaw is best enjoyed immediately; extended marination will cause the fish to turn chalky and eventually break down as the spiced coconut vinegar will continue to denature its proteins, essentially “overcooking” it.