Category Archives: Culinary Heritage

Kinilaw History, Origin and Evolution – Into the Heart of Freshness

I’ve had experience researching and writing about the origins of Filipino dishes before, but while dinuguan, Bicol express and sisig seemed straightforward enough, kinilaw / kilawin proved surprisingly complicated. What I thought would be a walk in the park has morphed into a wild ride around a vast, evolving culinary universe (Oops). 🙂

It behooves me to say therefore, that attempts to be both exhaustive and definitive have fallen short. At the most, this is but an exploratory probe into the heart of freshness.

Kinilaw Book
Fernandez and Alegre’s ode to freshness

Click on a link below to go directly to the section:

1. Definition and Base Formula
2. To Cook or Not to Cook
3. Origin and History
4. Region of Origin
5. Kinilaw vs. Kilawin
6. The Other Kilawin / Kinilaw
7. The Many Faces of Fresh
8. Kinilaw Masters
9. Fusion Country


Definition and Base Formula

In Kinilaw: A Philippine Cuisine of Freshness by Edilberto N. Alegre and Doreen G. Fernandez, kinilaw is a Visayan term that is:

“…fish/shellfish/meat etc. eaten raw as is, or with vinegar and other condiments.”

Amy Besa and Romy Dorotan, authors of Memories of Philippine Kitchens include several other elements by defining it as:

“…a selection of fresh produce, soured and combined in the moment, specific to the next moment and place.”

If we were to extract a basic formula from the combined definitions above, I suppose it would look something like this:

Fresh raw main ingredient + souring agent (optional) + condiments = kinilaw

That the ingredients must be fresh is already a given and a matter of common sense, but because of differences in regional cultures, availability of ingredients and personal preferences, there can be innumerable variations to the other elements of the basic formula.

To Cook or Not to Cook

Alegre and Fernandez refer to vinegar as the liquid fire that cooks the main ingredient. Nonetheless, kinilaw is best served when the vinegar hasn’t thoroughly seeped through. Once it does, the dish can turn rubbery depending on the main ingredient. Hence, in its best form, it should really be closer to the raw state. Most food enthusiasts I’ve asked will only accept this form of the dish and discount any others that involve cooking over fire.

Fernandez however, mentioned fire cooking as a possible recipe variation, whereby, for example, vegetables as the main ingredient may be blanched and meat may be half-cooked. In the case of fully cooked pork, beef or goat, usually grilled or boiled, Alegre suggests they may still be considered variations of kinilaw if they are taken through the process of souring and mixed with the usual condiments. This, I suppose, is subject for debate.

Origin and History

The dish most often associated with, and usually used as a synonym for kinilaw is the Central / South American ceviche. This is a dish of raw fish, marinated in citrus juice such as lime and mixed with condiments. Is kinilaw then merely a local version of this foreign dish? What is the difference between kinilaw and ceviche? To answer these questions, it’s important to revisit the origin of ceviche too.

One theory suggests that fish seasoned with salt and aji or marinated in local fermented fruit juice was already being consumed 2000 years ago in coastal areas of what is now Peru. The locals may have simply switched to the use of citrus fruits brought by Spaniards. The other origin theory for ceviche is that it may have been brought to Peru by Moorish women who had accompanied Spanish colonizers.

Traditional ceviche was marinated for a couple of hours. Modern ceviche, introduced in the 1970s by Peruvian-Japanese chefs, is served immediately after preparation.

Kinilaw is markedly different from ceviche in its use of vinegar as the main souring agent, or none at all. Also, the short marination time has been a standard kinilaw element long before it was introduced to Peru in the 70s. Nonetheless, the two dishes have obvious similarities, and the seeming historical link can be surmised. It has been suggested that Spanish colonizers and/or travelers from Mexico introduced ceviche to us.

Fernandez however, cites archeological evidence of our own which point to kinilaw being possibly a thousand years old, predating Spanish influence. The 1987 Butuan Balangay dig unearthed tabon-tabon halves together with fish bones. Tabon-tabon is a fruit abundant in Northern Mindanao, the juice extract of which is commonly used in kinilaw dishes served in some parts of Mindanao.

Northern Mindanao fish kinilaw
Northern Mindanao fish kinilaw

Fernandez has also presented textual evidence of kinilaw’s local origin in early dictionaries written close to the point of first contact for and by Spaniards. The Vocabulario de la lengua Tagala (1613) refers to cqilao as a sort of pickling sauce of the natives, that is, salt, vinegar and chili in which meat or fish is placed. Other dictionaries in the 1700s and 1800s contain some references to the dish. Most notable of these are the Vocabulario de la lengua Pampanga en romance (1732), which mentions quilao as eating slightly cooked meat, and the Vocabulario de la lengua Tagala (1754), which lists quilauin as a dish of meat or fish in vinegar.

Alegre helpfully adds that the dish is part of the culinary repertoire of groups largely unaffected by Spanish culture, the Ivatans and the lumad (indigenous) of the Cordillera for example, thereby proving the dish’s local origin.

In my opinion, the best evidence that kinilaw originated in our native shores may be deemed circumstantial but highly logical. There was, and still is, such an abundance of fresh food sources, that it would have been inevitable for our forefathers to discover the dish.

Indeed, I had witnessed firsthand how, in Bantayan, houses were so close to the sea that fresh catch could be hauled straight into kitchens. My immediate feeling was that cooking was superfluous, even wasteful in the midst of such fresh abundance.

Region of Origin

Can one region claim to have created kinilaw? Was it invented by one group: the Visayans, Mindanaoans, Tagalogs, Ilocanos or Pangasinense? I have not found documentary evidence yet that can pin down its origin to one area. If you think about it, this is simply too difficult to do considering the expansive scope of the dish’s nature, definition and variety, ranging from plain raw consumption to more elaborate mixes.

Is it not more likely that, surrounded by freshness everywhere, the people of each region awakened to the practice of preparing and consuming raw food in their own manner and style?

This again, is a matter open to debate.

Kinilaw vs. Kilawin

What is the difference between kinilaw and kilawin? Kinilaw is the term used in the Visayas and in many areas in Mindanao for raw or semi raw food. Kilawin is the terms used in many Tagalog regions and some of the other regions in Luzon for the same dish.

Because the Philippines is culturally diverse, it is likely that the dish may be called other terms in other places. Fernandez and Alegre record for example, the term lataven in Batanes and lawal among the Tausugs in Mindanao as regional synonyms of the dish.

The Other Kilawin / Kinilaw

I suppose it is when the two most commonly used terms for raw food are used for entirely different recipes that confusion sets in. In Ilocos, there is another dish called kilawin. My Visayan mother who has lived for many years in Northern Luzon insists that the Ilocano kilawin is not the same as the Tagalog dish of the same name. Negros Occidental kinilaw master Enting Lobotan differentiates between the two dishes too.

Ilocano kilawin is goat, beef or pork boiled, grilled, chopped and mixed with vinegar, an assortment of condiments and papait (bile). It is worth noting however, that although traditional Ilocano kilawin is cooked, Ilocanos do have their own raw fare. Several sources call this raw Ilocano dish kilawen.

In Cuyo, Palawan, there is a dish called kinilaw that has nothing in common with the similarly named Visayan dish. According to Country Cooking: Philippine Regional Cuisines by Michaela Fenix, Cuyo’s kinilaw is made up of ground beef liver, tenderloin and spleen, boiled in water and vinegar and then fried. Garlic, pepper, mint, green onions and sugar complete the mix.

The Many Faces of Fresh

I was as a young traveler to Bantayan Island when I had my first glimpse of fish kinilaw. I watched my grandfather devour a huge bony fish drowned in tuba (coconut vinegar). His steadily reddening face made me suspect that perhaps it was the alcoholic version of tuba that he had used as marinade. He was so engrossed by his meal that I was convinced he would not have noticed if a herd of cattle thundered past him.

I thought then that kinilaw always had to be fish and that it was always served plain with just vinegar. This particular research work however, has revealed the near limitless scope of the dish. Nearly anything fresh can be made into kinilaw and a wide array of souring agents and condiments can be thrown into the mix.

Aside from fish of all shapes and sizes, seafood like crabs, clams, shrimp, oysters, squid, sea urchin, abalone and scallops can be used as main ingredients. Among land animals, pork, beef and goat make the cut. The more adventurous can try abatud (coconut beetle larva) or tamilok (shipworm).

Although not everyone is likely to agree, my inquiries have revealed that some people also consider raw vegetables and unripe fruits as types of kinilaw. Examples of these include banana blossom, green mango, green papaya, radish and tomatoes.

As to souring agents, there is a broad set of options to choose from. Vinegar alone has numerous varieties. In Cebu and Cagayan de Oro, tuba, which comes from coconut is commonly used as a souring agent. Other options depending on region and availability are Bulacan’s sukang paombong from the nipa fruit, sukang Iloko from sugarcane, Surigao’s buri vinegar, and Negros’ sinamak (spiced vinegar).

Types of Vinegar
We are the land flowing with coco milk and vinegar. Here’s just five of many vinegar variations.

Other souring agents can be used together with or in place of vinegar. Suha / dayap (lime) and kalamansi are among the most commonly added. Other sour fruits that have found themselves included in raw food recipes include green mango, kamias, paho, green sineguelas and balimbing. In Batanes, a fruit foreign to other areas called valatinog is used.

The usual line of condiments that can be added into kinilaw are ginger, onions, chili, green onions and salt. In Hinatuan, Surigao del Sur, the wild onion called seyboring can be used in place of regular onions.

Less universally accepted additions that enjoy regional popularity are garlic, coconut milk, cucumber, radish, black beans, sugar, tomatoes and salted duck eggs. According to Fernandez, in Butuan, coconut can be toasted first before its milk is squeezed.

Other areas demonstrate an even more unique use of local ingredients. Some fruit juices and plant parts can neutralize the lansa or fishy taste, smell or feel of fish kinilaw. I am most familiar with tabon-tabon, found only in select areas in Visayas and Mindanao, and which, I do not think has an English name. It supposedly has the added ability of preventing indigestion.

Other lansa neutralizers used in other regions are sineguelas bark extract, dungon (kind of nut) pulp, pungango (small young coconut), and bakawan (a type of mangrove bark).

Tabon-tabon from Cagayan de Oro

Kinilaw Masters

It’s possible there really are a thousand and one kinilaw variations mainly because anyone who professes a love for it can opt to inject his unique preferences. My mother likes her fish filleted and marinated longer than usual in cane vinegar and garlic. Any leftovers later become excellent material for inun-unan (soured fish dish cooked over fire).

My father-in-law, whose recipe appears in the video above, prepares his the traditional Kagay-anon way, but he has added his personal touch. Because he rebels against the idea of using sugar or soft drinks to sweeten kinilaw, he uses a combination of sweet, freshly harvested coconut vinegar and old stock vinegar to balance the taste.

Then there are masters who have elevated kinilaw into a whole new level of expertise, proposing the efficient and proper use of ingredients and combinations to create the perfect taste experience. Undoubtedly, the most popular of them is Enting Lobaton, whose name appears on every single reference article or piece of kinilaw literature I’ve read. From Negros Occidental, he dispenses sage advice.

Strong vinegar, he says, can be made milder with sugar, lime, salted egg or coconut milk. Mild vinegar on the other hand, can be made stronger with paho or green sineguelas. Some fish like bangus and tangigue react too fast to strong marinades and are therefore best prepared with milder souring agents. Scallops and squid both toughen when marinated; hence, lime can be used for the former while the latter can be eaten dipped quickly in vinegar. Fish with more lansa are ideally prepared with kalamansi.

Kinilaw Condiments
Suha, kalamansi and the rest of the condiments gang

Fusion Country

Once the Pinoy has exhausted every possible permutation of a basic culinary formula, recipes move into fusion country. In some parts of Mindanao, sinuglaw is served. This is essentially traditional kinilaw with cuts of sinugba (grilled pork) mixed in. In some Visayan regions, kinilaw can be consumed with paired dishes such as cornmeal in Zamboanguita, Negros Oriental; boiled bananas or root crops in Catbalogan, Samar and Hinatuan, Surigao del Sur. More elaborate pairings include pareha, the pairing of kinilaw banana blossom and grilled bangus from Hagonoy; and sutokil, a combination of sinugba, tinola (soup-based dish of meat and vegetables) and kinilaw from the Vis-Min region.

This is as far as I dare go exploring the heart of freshness. It is a story where the beginning is difficult to trace and the end is not imminent. There is simply no end to its evolution. By all indications, kinilaw is an organic, multifaceted element that thrives within the many different sub cultures of the Filipino race. One thing is certain though, to us, the dish is an embodiment of a way of life and an indisputable evidence of nature’s abundant benevolence.


1. Edilberto N. Alegre and Doreen G. Fernandez, Kinilaw: A Philippine Cuisine of Freshness (1991)
2. Amy Besa and Romy Dorotan, Memories of Philippine Kitchens: Stories and Recipes from Far and Near (2012)
3. Michaela Fenix, Country Cooking: Philippine Regional Cuisines (2014)
4. Nora V. Daza, Let’s Cook with Nora (1969)
5. Angelo Comsti, Philippine ‘kinilaw’ takes center stage in Madrid Fusion 2015
6. Kinilaw, Project Gutenberg
7. Ceviche, Wikipedia
8. Kapuso Mo Jessica Soho, The different versions of kinilaw
9. Clinton Palanca, How to make ‘kinilaw’ – from the ‘kinilaw master’ himself
10. Marketman, Ceviche of Yellow Fin Tuna a la Marketman
11. Good Samaritan, Traditional Ilocano Dish: Raw Beef Kinilaw

Dinuguan Origins and Regional Variations across the Philippines

I only eat dinuguan when the meat in it is prime cut pork. I do know of course, that the more traditional versions of the dish contain animal innards. In Cris C. Abiva’s A Quick Guide To Filipino Food & Cooking, part of dinuguan’s description includes, “Pork, beef or chicken and innards stewed in fresh blood…”

Often the question for me is, how far will I go with dinuguan? Am I ready for some close encounters of the “internal” kind?

Recently, I did have the opportunity to finally come face to face with what really goes on inside a warm, comforting bowl of traditional dinuguan. My father-in-law who has been cooking for more than 50 years, and who started working as a cook in the markets of Cagayan de Oro at the age of ten says he has always followed a traditional recipe which includes pork small intestine and bamboo shoots mixed in with pork blood. Here, this dinuguan recipe is known more commonly as sampayna.

Origins of Dinuguan

My first in depth encounter with sampayna led me to wonder about the origins of the dish. My search for the story of its creation however has been largely difficult and fruitless either because of my limited academic resources or my poor research skills. In any case, unlike sisig and Bicol express that at least have origin stories of their modern versions, I was not able to find one for dinuguan, making it doubly difficult to identify its older roots.

There is a story online about dinuguan having been born out of the Filipinos’ natural tendency to make sure nothing ever goes to waste. There is another about its having been the result of the native population having been deprived of choice meat cuts during the Spanish period. I did not find historical references or documents in support of these stories and I am therefore unable to prove their veracity.

Food essayist Doreen G. Fernandez credits the inventiveness of Filipina housewives as the originating force behind the dish but she also refers to it in another essay as “indigenous”. With hardly a documentary trace of its first appearance, I am leaning towards the assumption that the recipe is pre Hispanic.

In Cagayan de Oro I learned of the lechon connection which is perhaps the origin story of why dinuguan and lechon are always together. When a pig is roasted for a feast, lechoneros here often immediately prepare sampayna out of the collected pig’s blood instead of disposing of it.


Regional Variations

Despite the lack of a definitive origin story, we do have an abundance of documentation on regional variations, both in name and methods of preparation. Cagayan de Oro’s sampayna is therefore only one of many.

In Gilda Cordero Fernando’s Philippine Food and Life, she mentions tinumis from Nueva Ecija where pork meat and jowls are sautéed in onions, garlic and kamias. Coagulated pig’s blood was then mashed with the fingers and flavored with patis, long green hot pepper and hot pepper leaves.

Cordero also gives an account of Vigan’s dinardaren with thick, smooth sauce that is the result of keeping pig’s blood from coagulating. A more watery version is called mollo. Dinardaren is eaten with chicharon instead of puto.

In Memories of Philippine Kitchens, Amy Besa and Romy Dorotan note that in Pampanga, dinuguan is called tidtad bigac. Other sources call it tidtad babi or tidtad baca. Fernandez recounts Raquel de Leon’s Pampanga recipe which is saucy and uses oregano as an additional ingredient.

In an Inquirer article, Linda R. Corsiga’s Bicol recipe for tinutungang dinuguan contains coconut milk and laurel leaves.

This is by no means a complete account of regional and personal recipes. Depending on whose book you are reading, dinuguan can also be cooked using cow or chicken blood and the sauce can be chunky or smooth, thick or thin.

Blood Dishes across the Globe

The Philippines is not the only place where animal blood is used for cooking. The ancient Spartan melas zomos or black soup used pig’s blood as a main ingredient, and although the original recipe is supposedly lost to us, there are other European countries that continue to serve blood soup.

In other parts of the world, duck blood is used in Poland for the soup czernina and in Vietnam for tiết canh. Italy has blood sausages and Britain has black pudding. Blood pancakes are served in Spain, Scandinavia, Sweden and Finland. In China and Hungary, pig’s blood is consumed in its solidified form.

I started this journey looking for the origin of dinuguan. I invariably ended up with a greater appreciation for the richness of Filipino cuisine and an acceptance for what makes us both unique and similar to other cultures across the globe.

Sisig Origin – How the Perfect Beer Match Came to Be

Sisig and beer are like peanut butter and jelly; coffee and cream; pencil and paper; running shoes and socks; Kris Aquino and controversy. They just really go well together. To be clear though, this popular Kapampangan dish isn’t just for beer drinkers, happy hour patrons or people who want to drown their sorrows (or the cause of their sorrows) in a potent mix of alcohol and fat. Nearly everyone I know loves this dish.

Like many Filipino dish origin stories, there are many different accounts and versions as to how sisig came to be. What is surprising though is that it may have originated well before the 20th century. I had always mistakenly imagined that sisig was a modern creation.

One of many versions— pork sisig minus the hot plate

Sisig in the 1700s

Most sources agree that perhaps the earliest reference to sisig was in a 1732 Kapampangan dictionary, Vocabulario de la Lengua Pampanga en Romance by Fr. Diego Bergaño who was then the Augustinian parish priest of Mexico, Pampanga. He described sisig as a salad of green papaya or guava. Some translators mention that the dish is supposedly served with some simple condiments or sauce, perhaps of pepper, garlic, salt or vinegar.

Shockingly, the original sisig had absolutely no meat in it.

Other Stories

There’s a great deal more to the etymology of sisig than what’s contained in Bergaño’s story. Although I am currently unable to verify these other stories through their source documents, I think they’re worth noting with citations to possibly secondary or tertiary sources.

According to Karen, a Kapampangan blogger, sisig is really a general term for a sour food item that is eaten by itself, for example, sour unripe fruit dipped in vinegar. Karen further expounds that the derivative term mapanisig is still actually used in the modern sense to denote a person who likes eating sour food by itself.

An article by Robby Tantingco in the Department of Tourism website presents an alternative angle, pointing out that manyisig may mean to make salad and that someone who is mapanisig makes a lot of salad. Tantingco also suggests that sigang; the sour soup of fish, shrimp, chicken or pork more popularly called sinigang; may have come from the term sisigan which means to make sour.

Whatever are the true stories behind sisig’s word derivatives and their origins, one thing is clear, the dish in its original form and meaning exuded sourness. According to another story in the popular food blog, sisig salad was supposedly used as an early remedy for nausea and hangovers because the sour taste was considered a vomit suppressant. Thus was probably born the first direct connection between sisig and alcohol drinkers.

The Evolution of Sisig

It is not clear when the exact point was when sisig evolved into a predominantly meaty main dish with the sourness factor turned down a level lower. Many regular folks I know cite the story of how the kitchen staff of the former US Clark Air Base regularly threw out pigs’ heads. The residents of Angeles, Pampanga who probably thought this was a waste of perfectly edible heads, bought them at cheap rates. The jowls and ears were boiled and chopped, with some mixing in pig brains and chicken liver, and seasoned with onions, salt, pepper and/or vinegar.

There are those who say however, that the sisig recipe that came out of the heads that rolled out of the American base was simply a different version of a recipe that residents had already been used to preparing.

It’s also worth considering that the term sisig may correctly be considered not just as the name of a dish but also as a way of preparing food. In an article by Claude Tayag in the Philippine Star, he tells the story of how, in the early 1970s, he was served a dish which was called sisig by his host during the town fiesta. The dish of pure pork fat boiled and soaked in vinegar hardly seems like the sisig we recognize today but was still obviously considered so probably because it was prepared following a certain method.

Enter Aling Lucing

Lucia Cunanan of Angeles City is credited for having created the modern sisig dish that we know today. It was reportedly around 1974 when Cunanan, in her eponymous eatery Aling Lucing alongside the railroad crossing, introduced new elements into the traditional sisig recipe. After boiling the meat, she also grilled and/or broiled it before chopping and adding chicken liver and seasoning. Cunanan also reportedly used the meatier cheeks and snout for her recipe.

It is not clear whether the hot or sizzling plate is also an innovation by Cunanan or one other neighboring eatery. Regardless of whoever came up with the idea first, it’s likely that the introduction of the hot plate was the final key that pushed the dish into the hearts and arteries of the Filipino people, making it a national favorite.

In an episode of No Reservations, international chef, Anthony Bourdain remarked that sisig is “exactly what you want” when you’re drunk, thereby confirming that the dish truly is best for beer drinkers. 🙂

Sadly, Cunanan, the Philippines’ undisputed sisig queen, met her tragic end in 2008, mysteriously bludgeoned to death. Her memory however, will continue to live on for as long as Filipinos cherish her culinary masterpiece.

Sisig on a sizzling plate. Photo by Louis R

Pampanga and Beyond

In 2013, Angeles, Pampanga held the first ever sisig festival. The event, Sadsaran Qng Angeles is now an annual affair and Angeles itself is the recognized Sisig Capital of the Philippines. Despite its solid claim to the title however, there has been no stopping Filipinos from many different regions from concocting their own versions of sisig. Today, sisig variations include chicken, fish, shrimp and even tofu.

From a simple sour salad, sisig has truly gone a long way, crossing land and sea and carving its mark in our history as a well loved, truly authentic Filipino creation, and again, it’s not just for beer drinkers.

A Cagayanon’s version of sisig. Get his recipe here.

Bicol Express Origins – Manila or Bicol?

There is no doubt that Bicol Express is one of the Philippines’ most popular dishes. This is thanks in no small measure to the heat this flavorful dish packs. As the story goes, it’s named after the train that plies the Manila-Naga route. For obvious reasons, it is a common assumption that the dish naturally hails from the Bicol region.

Interestingly, the story of its origin isn’t as uncomplicated as it seems. Apparently, a great dispute has been raging over its invention. While many Bicolanos continue to claim it as a true regional heritage dish, an alternative story has come to light.

According to a number of sources, most notably the celebrated Filipino food blogger, Market Man, who references The Philippine Cookbook by De Guzman and Puyat, the dish may actually have been created in the restaurant of Cely Kalaw in Manila some decades ago. It was said to have been intended to accompany and enhance a toned down version of laing. Hence, diners could opt to adjust the heat level of laing. This, they say, was the solution conceived by Kalaw to cater to the taste buds of those who could not endure the very hot original laing recipe.

Bicol dishes call for chili overload.

Part of the contention stems from the suggestion that the recipe was purportedly concocted outside of Bicol. Incidentally, Kalaw was born in Laguna and not in a Bicol province. Nonetheless, having lived in the region, it is not difficult to assume that Kalaw drew inspiration from its rich culinary tradition. It is noteworthy that there is a similar local dish to Bicol Express called gulay na lada which Micky Fenix in an Inquirer article said Kalaw based her recipe on.

For whatever it’s worth, there is no question as to the region’s stamp of influence on the dish. Regardless of whether it was created elsewhere or not, its spirit is characteristic of the place for which it was named.

Curiously, even if we do manage to settle on a universally accepted origin story one day, I suppose there will be no end to the debate over it. There are now numerous versions of the dish that it has become impossible for any cook to attempt his version without receiving some fair amount of criticism.

Chili, salted shrimp fry and everything nice.

The cook in the video above is Cagayanon but the recipe is from his Bicolano co-worker who says the real predominant ingredient of Bicol Express is really long, green chili peppers. Other versions now substitute this with Baguio beans and omit the salted shrimp fry. Obviously, not everyone can survive the experience of munching on chilis.

For the Cagayan de Oro cook’s complete recipe, visit our sister site,