No, it’s not about Napalm. You won’t be hearing “I love the smell of Napalm in the morning” and that it “smells like victory”. The liquid fire I’m talking about isn’t the same liquid fire that Lt. Col. Bill Kilgore talks about in Apocalypse Now. Although I don’t love “the smell of Napalm in the morning,” I do love the smell of fresh meat, mixed scents of fresh fish, raw beef, freshly slaughtered pig and vegetables still smelling of soil. Nothing compares to the cacophony of sounds in the wet market, the indistinct chatter of buyers haggling for lower pries and pushing their luck Most of the time I prefer the wet floors of the market to the spotless halls of the grocery. Allow me to take you with me into an experience you’ve probably never felt before.
Have you ever asked the question, “How is a new dish created?” A dish is created out of necessity or influenced by the events that occur in a certain place or era. The preference of a culture and the availability of ingredients dictate the cuisine of a people. A cuisine is not solely a man’s creation, but also the interaction between the man, his terrain, and the times.
Let’s talk about a dish celebrated by the world — sushi. When you hear sushi, you think Japan. I bet you’ve always thought that sushi was a common dish enjoyed by the Japanese for centuries but that’s actually a big misconception. In fact, the Yellowfin tuna, a fish usually used in making sushi, is a very difficult fish to catch. These marvelous sea creatures travel unpredictable distances and which lowered the demand for the yellowfin tuna. Tuna was worthless before. If the elusive yellowfin was caught, its fate was either to end up in a can as pet-food or to end up in the taxidermist’s lab to be stuffed and then hung on a wall of its captor. Sushi only became popular when transportation and refrigerating technology progressed enough to catch a deep-sea dwelling fish. Such that if the fish were caught on Monday it could then shipped ten thousand miles away to be used to make sushi in a Tokyo Sushi bar on Thursday. Sushi was only eaten by the upper class in Japan but the shrinking of the world made it more accessible and more available than ever. The popularization of sushi is a testament to the world’s interconnectedness. Only in the late 70′s was it able to experience a market boom.
Ever heard of Kinilaw? If yes, what’s the first thing that comes to mind? It’s actually a very old dish that shows the ancient Filipino’s way of travel and mastery of the perilous sea. If Japan has sushi, the Philippines has Kinilaw.
The first appearance of the dish in the Philippines was in 1987, when archaeologists excavated the first Balangay. Archaeologists were able to excavate another Balangay in Butuan City, Agusan Del Sur, Mindanao.The Balangay is a boat built and crafted by Filipinos. It is the type of boat our ancestors used to traverse the seas, comparable to the Viking longboats. It made possible for the Austronesian Race to move from Taiwan, the Philippines, to parts of South-East Asia and even to Madagascar and the Hawaiian Islands.
Inside the Balangay, anthropologists found tabon-tabon (a fruit eaten with Kinilaw in Mindanao) and bones of yellowfin tuna cut in the same way Kinilaw is cut today. This suggests that more than a thousand years ago our ancestors ate a dish that embodies our sea-faring spirit. They traversed the seas and knew it well as suggested by the presence of the yellowfin tuna found in the Balangay. It would take adept sea faring and fishing skills to catch such a powerful and elusive fish.
This Filipino dish, Kinilaw, is not just a dish but also a cooking process. It is the cooking of fish, shellfish, or seaweeds in acid. The seafood is cooked by the acidity of the acid (whether lime juice or vinegar) chosen by the person preparing the dish. That’s why they call Kinilaw “Liquid Fire”. It is the oldest recorded dish and cooking process known throughout Philippine History.
Kinilaw has an infinite list of our land and sea. Men who live by the sea could tell their wives to start cooking the rice while he in turn would paddle away with his boat to catch the viand for the meal. The men would fish and come back with the catch at about the same time the rice is cooked.
Kinilaw has an infinite list of varieties. Doreen Fernandez, a chef, critique and columnist on Philippine Cuisine said that for every fish there’s a different Kinilaw. Every region has its own. It is not impossible that every island has its own interpretation so you have thousands of versions to choose from. In Pangasinan, the people enjoy their Kinilaw using wild tiny jumping shrimps eaten live. The lemon is squeezed on the shrimps. it is after the lemon juice in squeezed that they make a jump for their lives, fleeing from the acid deadly to their kind. It’s literally a struggle from the jaws of death. Talk about a way to die. I hope I don’t become a shrimp in the afterlife. Kidding aside, let us take a look at some of the different ways of preparing Kinilaw.
In some parts of Visayas they squeeze in coconut milk into the mixture. Some even put diced inihaw na liempo.
I like to put Lato (seaweeds) in my shellfish Kinilaw. I put in native shallots a little ginger a dash of salt and pepper, minced siling labuyo (chilies) then enjoy it with white wine from Bordeaux on a hot summer day (which you will see at the bottom of this post).
Kinilaw, I think, is not only a dish or a process. It’s an experience. “Kilaw” is a noun not a verb. A bite is a revelation. As each second passes, the palate successively recognizes each ingredient. It’s the feeling of the teeth slicing through the tender flesh of a yellowfin tuna, the crisp crunch of the tiny shrimps’ shell inside the mouth, the nodding of the heads praising the cook, the cringing of the jaw courtesy of the sour lime juice, the scent of freshly cut native onions or the feeling of the popping of the lato releasing the mildly salty liquid, suddenly changing the flavor of the dish. Whether at noon by the sea or in the evening in a five-star hotel, Kinilaw will transport you through time, through a time when Filipino fishermen paddled off to sea, and to a time when women waited in anticipation by the boiling clay pot filled with rice grains. Kinilaw is an amazing dish that that tells the thousand-year story of the marriage of earth and sea.
In my opinion, it might as well be our Filipino national dish because each bite connects and reminds us Filipinos of our Austronesian past.