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The Kinilaw Connection February 27, 2008

Posted by Alex Sawit in Food & Drink.

By Alex Sawit

27 February 2008


Everybody knows Bochok. A member of that Friday trio of arguing scoundrels whom we fondly refer to as the Blue Babble Battalion, he’s one of the most assertive and loyal characters you can befriend at Cyrano. Put simply, I can’t think of any other Cyrano Friend whom I can ask on a moment’s notice, “Let’s go to some bar and pick a fight,” and not be surprised to hear my call to action immediately affirmed with a response of, “Okay, let’s go!!!” No wishy-washy double talk. He just goes all in with his chips.

Beyond the Shakespearean “band of brothers” camaraderie, Bochok is also an extraordinary, off the beaten path gourmet. If you want to talk anything and everything about Filipino food, look no further than the barstool he might be sitting on. He is an encyclopedic resource about the culinary traditions of the Philippines, offered to you in a condensed, easy to understand format. No fancy connoisseur terms. No condescending snobbery. He just tells it to you like it is.

So when Bochok dropped by, I made sure to ask his opinion about an intriguing topic of debate – a debate that raises a provocative question about the striking similarity between one of the great indigenous dishes of the Philippines and one of Latin America’s classic seafood snacks.

Kinilaw versus Ceviche: Which is the original?

Separated on opposite sides of the globe, kinilaw and ceviche represent a similar offering of zesty, lip-smacking seafood salad that has captured the attention of Western foodies and trend setters. Both dishes are made by marinating fresh fish or seafood in a souring agent such as lime juice or vinegar, causing an immediate chemical reaction that pickles the food or “cooks” it without heat.

Ceviche, which is made purely with citrus juice, is currently a favorite on the international food scene. In the U.S. ceviche has acquired a popular following, easily reflected by the growing number of New York bars that serve it as a chic snack as well as from the number of new cevicherias that have sprouted in major cities along the coasts. I’ve even read a write-up somewhere touting ceviche as the “in” food of the early 21st century.

Now I have to think that folks who would say stuff like that probably haven’t tried kinilaw yet. But I won’t argue about which is better. What interests me is the true origin of the South American dish. You see I’ve recently come across an argument, purportedly suggested by food historians, that ceviche is not native to the Americas and that it actually originates from Southeast Asia. According to the theory, the dish was brought across the Pacific a couple of hundred years ago by Spanish galleon traders and sailors, who picked up the original recipe in what was then the Spanish colony of the Philippines.

Interesting theory, eh? Given the potential for controversy that such a theory holds – not to mention the comical possibility this it could strain diplomatic relations between the Philippines and a couple of Latin American countries – it is important that we first tediously establish some facts before proceeding.

Enter good old Bochok, who temporarily abandons his glass of white wine to expound on the subject.

Kinilaw, he explains, is what the native dish is called in the Southern Philippines, from the Visayas to Mindanao. In the Northern Philippines, where Bochok hails from, the dish is called kilawin. In either case the name is derived from the root word “kilaw” which means “to pickle” (Bochok mentions that Ilocanos are renowned for making kilawin also out of fresh meat from goat, carabao and other livestock; for the purpose of our investigation, however, I am limiting things to seafood). In its most familiar form, kinilaw is made from meaty oceanic fishes like mackerel, tuna and marlin (any fresh seafood is welcome; oysters, for example, are popularly used wherever the shellfish is harvested). After slicing, the fish is marinated in vinegar and lime juice; different vegetables, herbs and spices are combined depending on regional tastes. The fish is then left to pickle for a pre-determined time.



Kinilaw made from talakitok (jackfish), marinated for 15 minutes before draining.


Most popular recipes call for hours of steeping to bleach the fish, giving its flesh that white appearance preferred by today’s diners. Afterward the dish is served as is, the marinade now functioning as a sauce to keep the fish moist. While Bochok appreciates kinilaw made in this fashion, he says that this is a modern interpretation. Traditional kinilaw, he emphasizes, has no “sauce.” Classical recipes never call for soaking the fish for a prolonged period; actually there is no soaking at all. Instead the fish is rinsed quickly in the vinegar-lime juice bath, minimizing the contact time between fish and liquid so that the flesh is “cooked” ever so slightly (fresh tuna, for instance, is allowed to acquire just a glow of pink). The dish is drained and the marinade discarded, leaving a refreshing salad of fragrant, marvelous semi-sashimi.

Even the choice of vinegar makes a difference, says Bochok. Modern recipes are usually confined to the mass-produced sukang puti (literally “white vinegar” but not the same as the white vinegar in Western kitchens) that dominates supermarket shelves and offers little character beyond face-puckering intensity. While this product rapidly bleaches fish to the whiteness preferred by modern diners, it is avoided by traditionalists. They favor authentic regional vinegars that are not only less harsh but offer great depth and complexity. Bochok says that Ilocos is famed for its Sukang Iloko made from basi (sugarcane wine). This dark, mellow potion is sometimes compared to balsamic vinegar and imparts exceptional flavor to Ilocano kilawin. Down south in Mindanao, where the off-shore waters are rich with the fruits of the sea, vinegars made from coconut and nipa palm are the staple choice.

It is in Mindanao, in the city of Butuan in the northwest, that our investigation into the link between kinilaw and ceviche picks up. Butuan (say “boo-twan”) is a mecca for kinilaw aficionados, who welcome the constant arrival of fresh catch from the nearby fishing ports of Surigao and General Santos (the latter airlifts considerable quantities of tuna to Japan). It is also one of the oldest communities in the Philippines connected to kinilaw. Indeed, the people there have a saying: “Before there was the Philippines, there was Butuan.” It was the discovery of ancient food discards, consisting of fish bones and husks of tabon-tabon, at a local cave in the 1980s that led archeologists to conclude that kinilaw has been a staple here for at least a thousand years – proof that this is one of the oldest indigenous dishes in the Philippines, if not the oldest (tabon-tabon is a fruit with a coconut-like shell that Butuanons have always used for kinilaw, owing to the its ability to neutralize fishy odors and prevent stomach hyperacidity, allowing diners to eat more).

From here on, things get contentious. Citing the archeological evidence of Butuan, proponents of the kinilaw connection argue that the Philippine dish must predate its South American counterpart by at least half a millennium. Experts confirm that ceviche emerged in South America, most likely in Peru, only after the Spanish conquest, explaining that the dish could not have existed there prior to that. They point that the most authentic ceviche is always made exclusively with citrus juice, an ingredient that didn’t exist in the Americas until after the arrival of the Spaniards, who introduced lemons, limes, oranges and other citrus fruits to the New World. By comparison, citrus fruits have been used as cooking ingredients all over the Philippine Islands since the Pre-Hispanic era. Proponents suggest that kinilaw was brought to the Americas following the establishment of the Manila-Acapulco Galleon Trade in 1565, after which the South Americans adopted the Southeast Asian recipe and then switched to a pure citrus marinade, creating the ceviche we know today.

Not so fast, say the skeptics, who claim that Peru, home of the ancient Inca Empire, is the most likely birthplace of ceviche. They cite records of Spanish conquistadors in the 16th century, who reported the peculiar Inca practice of eating raw fish spiced with chilies; crucially, among these records exists a rare account about how some Incas would dip raw fish in chicha to enhance its flavor. Chicha, which is as popular today in Peru as it was in Incan times, is a maize beer that has a slightly sour aftertaste. The mentioning of chicha as a possible pickling agent might suggest that the Incan delicacy is the direct ancestor of ceviche. The explanation is that once citrus fruits became available, the use of chicha with raw fish was abandoned completely.

Kinilaw proponents respond by saying that the idea of a citrus marinade could easily have been copied from the Philippines, where the use of lime juice was already well-established, by Spanish colonizers on their way to the Americas. Further, they interpret the use of chicha with raw fish as merely a convenient method used by Incan diners to add flavor, the maize beer functioning as an alcoholic condiment that gave a sweet-sour taste to the dish.

At this point I have to observe that Bochok, having already disseminated his knowledge about kinilaw, has no particular opinion about the possibility of a connection. Having moved from a Chardonnay-Sauvignon vin de pays to a Syrah from the Northern Rhone Valley, he reacts with good nature toward such a flattering idea.

“Hmm… maybe,” the thought balloon would read.

It was an honest, uncomplicated non-verbal answer. I know what’s on his mind because I share the same opinion. While I consider the theory to be both attractive and genuinely plausible, I am of the predisposition that different cultures separated by geography and time can arrive at similar ways of making similar foods. It does happen all the time.

As our group of comrades moved on to clink glasses with good single malt whisky, we understood beyond words that where a great dish may or may not originate from is less important to us than the fact that it is a great dish. Kinilaw and ceviche have both become a glorious part of our taste experience and we are all the richer for it.

Thanks, Bochok. That’s telling it like it is.





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