Kinilaw Softly


Kinilaw is an indigenous Filipino dish of incredible freshness, usually (but not always) featuring slices of raw seafood quickly bathed in a sour liquid. Filipino Kinilaw is a little bit like Latin American Ceviche in that the seafood can be dressed in citrus juice, however, the similarities end there. Where the raw fish in a Ceviche is drastically transformed and “cooked” after marinating for hours in citrus, the raw fish of Kinilaw retains its freshness after only a few moments in a sour bath.

On the scale of doneness for international uncooked seafood dishes,
Kinilaw would perhaps sit smack-dab in the middle: Japanese Sashimi
(raw), Filipino Kinilaw (rare to medium rare), Ceviche (well done). At least that’s how I look at it.

In his book, On Food and Cooking, Harold McGee writes:

“Kinilaw is the indigenous Philippine version of acid marination. Morsels of fish or shellfish are dipped for only a few seconds into an acidic liquid, often vinegar made from the coconut, nipa palm, or sugarcane, to which condiments have been added.”

Although different Filipino vinegars are the primary souring agent in Kinilaw, Kalamansi juice and other citrus juices like dayap lime, can be used as well.

To balance out the sourness, condiments and additions to Kinilaw
usually include copious amounts of chopped onions, ginger, and
chilies–although things like green mangoes, kamias, tomatoes, and
garlic can also be added.

As far as seafood goes, everything from fish, to sea cucumbers, to sea urchin roe, to crabs and lobsters, can be made into Kinilaw. Even raw oysters dressed in vinegar or kalamansi can be considered Kinilaw. Now while fresh raw seafood may be the most popular and well-known form of Kinilaw, there are other raw items that can be quickly bathed in vinegar and/or citrus and still be considered Kinilaw.

For example, vegetable Kinilaws can be made from bittermelon (ampalaya), or banana hearts, and there even exist Kinilaws of raw or partially cooked meats such as beef kinilaw and even goat kinilaw. The type of Kinilaw depends, of course, on where you are in the Philippines and how hungry you are, I suppose. In fact, during my visit to the Philippines last summer, I actually enjoyed quite a few spoonfuls of goat kilawin (raw goat meat, skin, and innards, shallots, ginger, salt, and vinegar) in Ilocos Norte.

Mmmmm. Raw goat meat.

Oh baby I like it RAAAAWWW!
Kilawing Kambing (Goat Kinilaw), ca. June 2008

In the book Kinilaw: A Philippine Cuisine of Freshness,  Edilberto N. Alegre and Doreen G. Fernandez write:

“The Ilocanos know when to have their kilawin–in the morning when meat is freshest, since animals are butchered at dawn.”


But since my dawns are dedicated to deep sleep and mouth breathing, and because I have zero access to freshly butchered goat meat, I figured I’d stick to the more manageable seafood variety of Kinilaw for this particular post. And how.

Whether a Kinilaw is made from vegetable, meat, or seafood, the singular characteristic of utmost importance to any Kinilaw is freshness. Use whatever is local and abundantly available, and preferably something that was alive and kicking only a few moments ago. In the Philippines, seafood “Kinilaw Masters” bring their vinegar and condiments onto their boats in anticipation of a fresh catch. After a fish is caught, it is gutted and cleaned on board; then the fresh fish meat is rinsed in sea water, sliced, and then immediately eaten after being dressed in vinegar and other goodies. Now that’s fresh.

Unless you have your own fishing boat, shopping for fresh sashimi-grade fish at a reputable seafood market is the next best option for good Kinilaw fodder. In my case, I was able to find some excellent fresh wild California yellowtail (kampachi).

With a pristine piece of yellowtail in my clutches, I was able to prepare two
different types of Kinilaw. The first is a basic Kinilaw dressed with
Sukang Iloco (dark sugarcane vinegar), salt, black pepper, ginger, shallots, chilies,
and a squeeze of Kalamansi. This first Kinilaw was basically my interpretation of an “Ilocano version of Kinilaw” as I dressed my fish with the same ingredients (as I remember them) from the the goat kilawin I enjoyed last year.

The second Kinilaw I prepared contained most of the same ingredients from the first, but it was also more of a coconut-themed version (heck, I even put on my fancy pants and served the Kinilaw in a coconut shell!).

Raw fish in a halfshell, sour power

For my coconut version, the fish was dressed in Sukang Tuba (coconut vinegar),
coconut milk, freshly shredded and toasted coconut, salt, black pepper, ginger, red onions, and chilies. I replaced the shallots for red onions in the coconut version as I thought the delicate flavor of the shallots would be lost in the coconut milk. I also omitted any Kalamansi juice in the second version for no other reason than I didn’t want any Kalamansi juice in it. Lastly, I used fresh coconut and made my own coconut milk (though canned would be fine) for this second version. For information on how to make your own coconut milk, see my post here.

Both types of Kinilaw had incredible depths of flavor–the different vinegars provided a different sourness for each, though the fish retained its flavor and freshness. Also, different types of spice were given by the shallots, red onions, ginger, and chilies.

While I enjoyed both versions of Kinilaw (especially with a few beers), I especially liked the coconut version. The coconut milk tempered the acid of the coconut vinegar, while the addition of toasted coconut flakes added more texture and a pleasantly sweet and nutty flavor. Overall, the coconut version was just a more mellow, softer Kinilaw.

Keep in mind that Kinilaw is very adaptable and open to many other interpretations. I can’t even begin to explain the different regional ways to prepare it. But the important thing to remember is to start with the freshest fish you can find, then experiment with different types of Filipino vinegar.

With that said, after you’ve found yourself a good piece of fresh fish, don’t go
ruining it by letting it steep and marinate for too long in its Kinilaw
dressing. Kinilaw should be enjoyed IMMEDIATELY after being prepared.
According to the Kinilaw book by Alegre and Fernandez:

Kinilaw, the perfect moment is marked visually by a translucence
towards, but without reaching, opacity. Texturally, it is a moment when
the fish or shrimp retains the firm softness of the raw, but reaches a
new state of being that has been called niluto sa asim–‘cooked’, or
more accurately transformed, in sourness.”

make sure you reach the sweet spot (er, sour spot) between raw fish and ceviche-cooked
fish, prepare the Kinilaw dressing ahead of time, then slice your fish,
and then toss everything together at the last second right before you
will serve the Kinilaw. Lastly, Kinilaw isn’t meant to be eaten as a
main course–it’s actually eaten as an appetizer or as bar food to be
enjoyed with a beer (or three).

Basic Fish Kinilaw

Serves 1-2 as an appetizer

1/4 cup Filipino vinegar (any of your choosing)
1 shallot, diced
1/2-inch piece of ginger, peeled and diced
1-2 bird’s eye chilies, sliced
1 teaspoon sea salt
Freshly ground black pepper, to taste
1/2 pound fresh sashimi-grade fish (i.e. yellowtail, tuna, Spanish mackerel, etc.)
Fresh Kalamansi limes, for spritzing

In a large bowl, combine the vinegar, shallot, ginger, chilies, salt and pepper. Cover and place in the refrigerator until ready to use.

Slice the fish into 1-inch pieces about 1/4-inch thick.

When ready to serve, place the sliced fish into the bowl with the vinegar dressing and toss to combine. Place all of the contents into a serving dish and serve immediately with beer.

Fish Kinilaw with Coconut Milk

Serves 1-2 as an appetizer

1/4 cup coconut vinegar
1/4 cup coconut milk
1 tablespoon toasted coconut flakes, divided
2 tablespoons red onion, diced
1/2-inch piece of ginger, peeled and diced
1-2 bird’s eye chilies, sliced
1 teaspoon sea salt
Freshly ground black pepper, to taste
1/2 pound fresh sashimi-grade fish (i.e. yellowtail, tuna, Spanish mackerel, etc.)

In a large bowl, combine the vinegar, coconut milk, half of the toasted coconut, red onion, ginger, chilies, salt
and pepper. Cover and place in the refrigerator until ready to use.

Slice the fish into 1-inch pieces about 1/4-inch thick.

ready to serve, place the sliced fish into the bowl with the vinegar
dressing and toss to combine. Place all of the contents into a serving
dish, garnish with the rest of the toasted coconut, and serve immediately with beer.

Kinilaw softly, with his song.

Down with O.P.P. (Other People’s Posts) about Kinilaw:

  • MJD-S July 26, 2009, 4:59 pm

    A new mission – to find Filipino vinegar in Japan!
    I definitely want to try the Basic Fish Kinilaw – luckily sashimi grade seafood *is* easy to find.
    Thanks for the recipes!

  • Jikuu July 26, 2009, 6:36 pm

    Very nice and informative post. Almost didn’t sound like you except for the silliness in the picture captions. =P
    In the end, it still makes me want to try kinilaw, so all’s good. Really like the presentation of the coconut-spiked kinilaw in the shell. I know you recommend beer with it, but what liquor do you think would pair well?

  • Lori Lynn @ Taste With The Eyes July 26, 2009, 6:52 pm

    Fancy pants. Coconut shell. Whoa.
    I would love love love to try this.

  • joey July 26, 2009, 8:18 pm

    Love love love kinilaw! Yours looks great! If you want another fantastic recipe, search Marketman’s blog for the kinilaw he prepared for his eyeball in Cebu last year (the Lechon eyeball) — it was one of the best I’ve ever tasted!

  • Efren July 26, 2009, 10:14 pm

    Dang, my dad is ALL about the kilawin and he makes it every chance he gets (which is pretty damn often). For him, the only type he makes is the goat, so we don’t even talk about making it with fish or anything.
    I’m intrigued to try your recipe for kilawing isda and use the sukang sili for it–I wonder if he’d notice that one of his jars was gone…

  • dhanggit July 27, 2009, 1:13 am

    you know marvin, i was thinking of preparing some kinilaw for my french guests this weekend but i have never tried making them. thanks for posting about this recipe! can’t wait to try them!
    ps, but maybe i should make it a little less spicy for them

  • Eat. Travel. Eat! July 27, 2009, 8:46 am

    Beautiful presentation and photos! I haven’t tried serving something in a coconut shell before. Never have heard or tried of Kinilaw so this was a exceedingly informative post for me :). I want to try it…now where is fish?

  • Lorena July 27, 2009, 1:26 pm

    That’s it – I’m now on a mission to make vegetable kinilaw. But probably not from bittermelon…Maybe banana hearts or something equally tasty?

  • Marcel July 27, 2009, 2:39 pm

    Hey Marvin, I came your way via EatingAsia’s blog and they have an awesome writeup on kinilaw as well:
    I don’t know if I can choose between the goat or fish kinilaw, so I’ll just have both!

  • ahnjel July 27, 2009, 6:05 pm

    oh my goodness! i have not seen a kinilaw so tasty looking since i left my grandmas house to move-in with my mum.
    kinilaw na kambing is the family fave, though i dont eat goat, i find it refreshing with all the sili and kalamansi and suka and all that rubbery skin… thinking of it makes my mouth water.
    its an awesome pulutan i tells ya!
    i myself like raw fish, being a jap-halfie, i was fed raw tuna at a very young age not knowing what the hell i was eating. hahaha but i love raw fish and very fresh raw beef!

  • veron July 27, 2009, 7:39 pm

    Ah, the kilawin. I’ve never brought myself to eat this before but i eat sashimi so go figure. However, now that I am older I am game to try this – you make it look delicious!

  • Leela@SheSimmers July 27, 2009, 10:29 pm

    I don’t think I’m brave enough to tackle goat kinilaw yet, but the fish version looks absolutely delicious. Thanks for a very informative and well-written post.

  • Jackie @ July 28, 2009, 10:24 am

    Very interesting and creative ceviche. I also love your presentation. So cute!

  • Laura July 28, 2009, 1:53 pm

    Looks amazing…and that is an overused word but I think here it is appropriate. Any idea where to find filipino vinegar in New York?

  • Indian July 28, 2009, 3:08 pm

    Hi there, the thing in coconut shell looks great, I think it surely tastes good as well. You have a delicious blog here, thanks for all the info and great pics.

  • raissa July 29, 2009, 1:10 pm

    I love, love kinilaw. I was lucky enough to grow up in a coastal region where fresh fish and seafood are accessible. Try kinilaw na squid and shrimp. With the squid, its blanched. Different regions make it differently. In Leyte, some put more coconut milk, other use just kalamansi, others use vinegar.

  • Jude July 30, 2009, 9:35 am

    Some experts on Mexican cuisine give Filipino sailors credit for introducing the concept of cooking seafood with vinegar (Diana Kennedy being one of them). Just thought I’d throw it out there.
    Been trying to get books from Alegre and Fernandez, by the way. Any tips?

  • oggi July 31, 2009, 10:11 am

    This is one favorite dish of mine that I have never “cooked” because the hubby doesn’t eat raw food, specially fish.
    The image of the freshly butchered goat meat reminds me of the time when I was about 5 or 6 during one fiesta at Sariaya Quezon. A freshly killed goat was hanging on a tree with a pail under it to catch the blood. All the men were skinning the goat and we children were fascinated by it. The exposure to it may be the reason I am not squeamish to try all kinds of food. (Sorry for the graphic details).:)

  • Burnt Lumpia August 2, 2009, 9:11 am

    Thanks for visiting my blog, MJD-S. Maybe you can find some kalamansi in Japan as well.
    Are you saying I’m not normally nice and informative, Jikuu;P Hmmm, and which liquor for Kinilaw? How bout some rum with the coconut version? Or maybe some lambanog with the coconut version, and some Basi wine with anything made with sukang iloco.
    Never be afraid to put your fancy pants on, LL!
    Thanks so much Joey. And yes, I’ve seen MMs post, I even linked to it at the bottom of my post.
    Sukang sili would be great in kinilaw, Efren. Just make sure it doesn’t completely kill the freshness of the fish.
    Hi dhanggit. Yes, definitely cut back on the chilies if you think it will be too spicy.
    Thanks ETE! I’m glad you could learn about a new dish from me.
    Hi Lorena. If you could find fresh banana hearts, give it a try in kinilaw.
    Thanks for visiting Marcel.
    Hi ahnjel. It’s amazing how refreshing sili, and kalamansi, and suka can make something–even goat meat.
    If you can find good quality fish, it’s definitely worth trying veron.
    Thanks Leela! I’m not sure there are many who would try the goat version;)
    Thanks Jackie.
    Hi Laura. You should be able to find filipino vinegar in most Asian markets.
    Thanks Indian.
    Squid and shrimp are definitely versions I’d want to try, raissa. Thanks.
    Hey Jude. Some people give Filipino sailors credit for the modern-day boxing stance too (we’ve always been able to scrap). I bought my Kinilaw book on Amazon, and then I have some other Fernandez books that I found at various Filipino festivals over the years.
    No need to apologize for the details, oggi! You painted a very vivid picture!

  • Christina August 8, 2009, 4:08 pm

    I just recently discovered your blog and am loving it. The freshness of both your writing and your flavors are great.
    This dish, especially the coconut milk version, sounds fantastic.

  • angela September 29, 2010, 1:06 pm

    It’s 4 am in the morning and I saw this site. I am seriously craving for some kinilaw >,< The pictures made me drool.

  • jaydee March 3, 2011, 10:20 am

    My Dad made the best Kinilaw but alas he passed away before I could get his recipe. I have been looking for a recipe and will try yours. Thanks!

  • Lisalt August 31, 2011, 5:50 am

    Interesting. I would try this. I know how to make Mexican ceviche.

  • freecallsphilippines September 15, 2011, 8:53 pm

    love this dish. the pictures of it are mouth watering.

  • Alex June 16, 2014, 10:36 am

    hey man! your blog is awesome! thanks for sharing all these great recipes. Made the basic fish kinilaw and it came out pretty tasty. Also, before i made it I asked my uncle for any tips–and he told me to make sure to wash the tuna in sprite first before putting it in the marinade. Tried it and it came out great! haha in any case, great recipe! Perfect with a bottle of red horse while watching the world cup. Cheers!

    also, told

  • karen September 22, 2014, 7:20 pm

    Thanks for sharing this great recipe! BTW, you have a great website!


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