I remember the first time I had kinilaw (kee-knee-lau…not the “law” in “lawyer”), Filipino cured seafood similar to the more well-known ceviche. It was a weeknight back in Saudi Arabia and my mom was hit with one of those rare nights of laziness so we bought food from the corner kalinderya serving the local Filipino workforce. Amongst the requisite containers full of greasy adobo, menudo, and chop suey was one filled with cubes of white fish and Thai chilis swimming in a milky white liquid. Looking back, that shit wasn’t good at all: the fish overcooked and chewy, the acidity overpowered by the too finely minced peppers, and the onions beginning to seep their purple into the liquid. But without a frame of reference, I remember my eyes widening…the perfect moment of childhood discovery. The burst of sharp sourness from the Datu Puti vinegar, the firm flesh…the rawness! Ever since then, kinilaw was a treat. From lunches during sweltering Saudi summers to seaside feasts back in our hometown of Iloilo, kinilaw provided the much needed bite to cut through the rich Filipino spaghetti (it contains condensed milk…a story for another day) and meat-heavy dishes without the tired pretension that ceviche sometimes carries (ceviche does NOT belong in a martini glass slathered with guacamole and salsa…gtfo!).
The origins of kinilaw are murky and I’m sure indigenous cultures all over the world began using acid to cure their seafood and extend its shelf life. However, I really like this legend I stumbled upon on the Bisaya blog Huni sa Daplin:
“A long time ago, there lived a Datu (Filipino Tribal Chieftain) who was an asshole and a gluttonous pig. He always wanted to satisfy his food cravings and always insists that his Cook must prepare some unique dish that will satisfy his voracious mouth. The cook always tries his best but the Datu is never satisfied.
“By tomorrow noon, if you cannot prepare a dish that is worthy of my royal stomach, then off with your head,” the Datu said.
The Cook, whose name was Law, was at his wit’s end as he had already cooked all the recipes that he knows of and yet the Datu was still not satisfied.
By morning the following day, Law was already mad with worry. He did not know what to do anymore. It was too much and he finally snapped.
“Fuck that Datu, if I am gonna die then he will die with me,” deliriously mumbled Law to himself. “That pig will die shitting”
Thinking that an uncooked fish would be a sure way to go to cause uncontrollable shitting (one of the leading causes of death in the old days); he filleted some fish, put vinegar, salt, and some spices and herbs and served the dish to the Datu.
The Datu surprisingly ate it with relish and said “Kini Law” (This is it Law).“
It’s probably unlikely but hey…still a cool story!
When I hit the jackpot with high quality seafood, I prefer not to mask it with too many different flavors but of course, you’re free to use chilis, coconut cream, ginger, and whatever other herbs you fancy! Just make sure your seafood is as fresh as possible lest you actually DO shit yourself.
– 1/2 lb. monkfish
– 1 shallot, minced
– 2 – 3 c. spicy cane vinegar
– juice of 1 lime or lemon
To garnish (opt.):
Crème fraîche (for creaminess)
Saffron oil (for aroma)
Boiled beets (for texture and color)
Radish slices (for some crunch)
Mint leaves (for aroma, flavor, and color)
Zaatar (an unexpected bitter herbaceousness…and a nod to my Arabic upbringing).
1) Slice the monkfish on a bias into small rectangle cuts (think the cuts you get when you order sushi or sashimi). Make sure they’re big enough to provide some textural contrast between a firm outside and a melt-in-your-mouth, buttery interior while being small enough not to require multiple bites.
2) In a large, non-metal bowl, place the monkfish in and pour in vinegar and lime juice until it just covers the fish. Toss in the shallots and mix.
3) Wait about 15 mins. Check out this great post from Serious Eats on how long you should wait for the acid to do its job while preventing it from overcooking.
Whoa…it’s THAT simple?! You’re welcome.