Cooking is simply defined as the preparation of food, typically using heat. In a biochemical process called denaturing, high temperatures from various methods such as grilling, braising or steaming alter proteins in meat and seafood, making them firmer (as with egg whites) or breaking down tissue to make them more tender (as with tough cuts like shanks).
But heat is not the only way of achieving this denaturation. Acids can do the same job, and there are many kinds of acidic agents easily found in the kitchen pantry, like citric acid from lemon and lime juices, acetic acid in vinegars, and tartaric and malic acids in wine. All of these are commonly used in marinades and brines in conjunction with heat-based preparation, not only to add flavor to food, but also to reduce cooking time by jumpstarting the protein-breakdown process. However, many cuisines have traditional recipes that skip the last part altogether and rely solely on acids to make the dish palatable.
Perhaps the best known of these is ceviche, the South American dish of raw seafood marinated in citrus, with regional variations in fish or shellfish, types of citrus, and other ingredients such as chilies, onions and tomatoes. Although Peru is generally accepted as the place of origin for modern ceviche, other theories trace its ancient roots across the ocean to the Pacific Islands, where similar raw marinated foods are quite common. Known by various names, like poisson cru in French Polynesia and ota ika in Samoa, Tahiti and Tonga, they are also prepared with citrus juice, but with the addition of coconut milk.
These recipes are the likely precursors to the Philippines’ own iteration called kinilaw [key-knee-lawuh]. Despite some assumptions that it is simply ceviche brought over by Spanish colonizers, there is archaeological evidence that pre-Hispanic Filipinos were eating kinilaw nearly 700 years before any European influence. And although it is essentially the same idea — preparing raw protein with an acid rather than heat — there is a marked difference in our dish from the South American and Polynesian versions: Instead of citrus juice, it utilizes vinegar.
The sharp taste of vinegar can be refreshing on the palate, especially when tempered with subtly sweet coconut cream and enlivened by ginger and chilies. The following recipe is courtesy of Ernesto ‘Nonoy’ Rodriguez, who offers just-caught seafood and locally raised meats at the Salcedo Saturday Market in Makati City. His recipe is typical of the Visayas region in central Philippines and uses as its main ingredient sinamak, a regional specialty of coconut vinegar, chilies, ginger and garlic. The seafood of choice is large white shrimp or tanguigue (Spanish mackerel). As is usually the case with oft-made dishes prepared by heart, Nonoy’s recipe was not exact with amounts and so may be adjusted according to taste.
2 lbs fresh white shrimp, peeled, deveined and cut into 1/2-inch pieces (this dish can also use salmon)
Apple cider vinegar or coconut vinegar
1 medium white onion, sliced thinly or diced small
2 tomatoes, still slightly green/unripe, diced
1-inch piece of ginger, peeled and grated or finely minced
1 red chili, chopped (optional)
Coconut cream or coconut milk: look for a brand with less than 25 percent water content
Place shrimp in a glass or non-reactive bowl and add vinegar to fully cover. Add salt, approximately two teaspoons. Set aside and marinate at room temperature for 15 to 20 minutes.
When ready, drain seafood from the vinegar mixture and discard the marinade. Using your hands, very gently squeeze excess vinegar from the shrimps, then place them in a clean, non-reactive bowl. Add fresh vinegar, but only half as much as previously. Add salt, onions, tomatoes, ginger and chili (if using), and mix well. Finally, add approximately ? cup of coconut cream (or more, to taste) and stir gently to mix. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate until well chilled. Taste and add salt as needed before serving. This dish is best consumed on the same day it is made.
A note on sushi-grade fish
When making a raw seafood dish such as kinilaw, it is very important to purchase the best quality fish or shellfish from a reputable source. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) suggests choosing seafood that has been previously frozen, as freezing kills harmful parasites that may be present (however, it does not kill all bad microorganisms).
The term ‘sushi-grade’ used by vendors implies that the seafood is appropriate for raw consumption; if it comes from conscientious sources, it usually is. As Matt Oxford of Wild Run Salmon, an HAACP-certified fisherman based in Homer, Alaska explained, “The standards for a piece of fish being ‘sushi-grade’ are based on the fish being frozen at a certain temp for a certain length of time to ensure that any bacteria have been killed.”
However, Nic Mink of Sitka Salmon Shares, a community-supported fishery in Sitka, Alaska, also noted that while fish may be iced immediately on the boat, most are then processed in a factory only after sitting in the ship's hold for up to a week. “This is the efficient way to do things, but it doesn’t produce good salmon.”
Both Matt and Nic offer sushi-grade salmon appropriate for use in the above recipe. For more information about their products and where to find them in the Twin Cities area, please visit their websites:
Wild Run Salmon at www.wildrunsalmon.com
Sitka Salmon Shares at www.sitkasalmonshares.com
Tracey Paska lives, eats and writes in Manila, Philippines, where she revels in the fact that she can wear flip-flops outdoors in January. When she's not exploring Manila's foodscape, she freelances for a national food magazine and writes about the complex and fascinating connections between food, culture, and society on her blog Tangled Noodle.