History of Kinilaw

Kinilaw is the art of FRESHNESS or the Art of Staying Fresh.

Kinilaw is not a rare recipe. In Fact 9.5 out of 10 filipinos can describe a kinilaw. It is so common that it is almost unnoticed but never unappreciated.

To those who are not familiar with kinilaw let us start the introduction with a question. Have you remembered your first taste of a sweet orange? The ones that are really sweet that makes you want to make another bite? That is the taste of a very fresh orange.

Now imagine tasting sweetness with a very fresh fish, the kind that makes you want to take another bite. Then you must have been eating a “Kinilaw”.

Yet, what is KINILAW?

Let us start with Bulacan’s Kilaw. Kilaw they say is eating something uncooked or unripe (i.e green mango). Anything that was not cooked, burned or boiled with fire and stays fresh is what they call good to Kilaw. Note that you can only “Kilaw” those that are raw & fresh (i.e freshly caught fish, or any seafood would be the most appropriate main ingredient for a kilaw). The same term was used by the friars’ way back in the Philippines Hispanic times, but of different spelling (Quilao) about making and eating something raw.

You must be asking, “But how can I possibly eat a raw fish without throwing up?” Yes, I believe, very raw fish is not really indigestible with the human stomach, I can say, except for those unique ones. But there is a different kind of fire that makes a very fresh fish ingestible. That is what we commonly call as VINEGAR.

Vinegar is what they call as “liquid fire”. It cooks the food just enough to be digested. In the Philippines ’VINEGAR’ is called ‘SUKA’. And so it goes with KINILAW, “hilaw giluto sa suka” (‘raw cooked by vinegar’). The fresh fish that is cooked by vinegar (KINILAW) still retains its freshness while being able to be eaten. Same goes with other sea foods.

Vinegar is actually extracted from fermented coconut juice. And in the Philippines the most famous of that sort is what we call TUBA. TUBA is the tingling sour-sweet stage of a fermented coconut sap. This is what Filipinos use to make kinilaw.

Yet, the diversity of culture made Kinilaw more interesting. In different places, with different people, there are different recipes and different names by which Kinilaw is known for. But in every recipe all the raw flesh is always mixed with vinegar to somehow cook to them.

Bulacan Kilaw To eat or to make
Cebuano-Visayan Quilao To eat meat, fish, tubers etc. raw / with only salt & vinegar
Samar-Leyte Quilao Preparing or seasoning
Vocabulario de la lengua Bicol Naghilao To eat raw food
Hiligaynon / Haraya Hilao To eat meat or fish raw
Maguindanao Ilao o maquilao To eat raw meat
Ilocano Kilaw/kilawen Means the same to prepare and eat raw meat/unripe fruits
Kagay-anon Kinilaw the dish of edible raw fish


When was Kinilaw Discovered?

To know exactly when the Kinilaw had started, how and who discovered it, we have to dig up into History. And there is no better way to dig up history than in books and documents.
In recorded history about native food you can always find something about fish-dishes and cuisines, describing the importance of freshness to voyagers and folk’s people. Let us start there.

Folk people exchange knowledge through conversations. If the folk people has not given a name to a thing then it does not exist, it will not exist. So, let us go check out the language books and dictionaries to know the existence of Kinilaw according to their description of what they had seen or heard before.

Our first stop: Primo Viaggio Intorno al Mondo. It had stated that Magellan’s first island stop experience was quite peculiar for them. Instead of a WAR or Battle, they were given GIFTS. It was a welcoming gesture from the native people of the Island that was later called as FIlipinos. They were given fresh fish and palm wine. It was like having a drinking session. So from this view point, like the Kinilaw today, (as historians say) Kinilaw before also acted like pulutan, something you partner when drinking with wine or alcohol. In modern scenario, it’s like eating peanuts while having a drinking session. As evidence in a dictionary entitled Vocabulario de la Lengua by Juan de Noceda and Pedro de Sanlucar they have illustrated kinilaw together with this poetic line:
Cun ang quilai,i, masair (masaid)
At ang toytoy ay matiti (matiktik)
Tapus ang pagcacaibig

On which was also translated:

When the kilawin is consumed
And the wine bottle is emptied,
The friendship (love) is ended.

In the Diccionario Geografico, Estadistico, Historico le las Filipinas (1850) you can read about a detailed male document about how coastal people serve and make their fishes. They have mentioned about salted fish. And that cooking rice, which takes quite some time, was first in line before they go hunt for fish. Therefore when they eat their meal the fish are always very fresh. Yet, it did not indicate there if it was fried or just plain fresh fish that was salted.

In the Vocabulario de la lengua Tagala (1613) by Pedro de San Buenaventura he defined Cqilao according to reference of use and process, both noun and verb. He mentioned on his dictionary about Cqinicqilao - mixing salt, vinegar and chili to a fresh meat or fish, or other (primary) ingredients. It is also use to refer to the process of consuming it or eating it. Friars of those times were using cqilao to instruct someone to make fresh condiments which are indeed very helpful to tell us the exact use of the word according to those times.

“Cqilavin mo yaring anvang”. Translated, “Make kinilaw of this carabao (meat)”.

As mentioned earlier, in the history of Filipino Cuisines, we find fishes in almost all of them. But kinilaw does not only pertain to fishes, as cited right above. It is also referring to fresh land meats. It was also supported by another book by Diego Bergaño entitled Vocabulario de la lengua Pampanga en romance (1732), as “eating meat slightly cooked but [still] raw,” and have also mentioned about young deers and other young animals.

In the 16th or 17th century it seems that the word cqilao is already a very daily word, like its part of their daily conversation. It seems that everyone knows about it, knows how to do it and that people make jokes about it, riddles about it.

Evidences dating way back 13th centuries A.D. shows that even before Spanish times Kinilaw is already widely known in our country. And that the fish are washed with vinegar and skinned and deboned before its declared ready to eat.
Going back to the book Vocabulario de la lengua Tagala (1754) by Juan de Noceda and Pedro de Sanlucar, it had also summed up our learning about the usage of the word Cqilao.

It states that Qilao, speaks of fresh fish soaked or marinated into vinegar. Its also use in referring to the act of eating it. Quilauin, on the other hand, is what they call the dish.

In 1987, A Balangay Expediton had dug up fish bones, cut exactly the way it is done today. Not far from it were shells of tabon-tabon, cut in halves and had an empty center. The archaeological artifacts are evidences that Kinilaw with tabon-tabon might be one of the oldest Filipino cuisine. Right now these artifacts are being carefully preserved at the National Museum.

Folk Lore: Stories of the Old

There is also a folk story about the origin of Kinilaw. It is actually a funny epic story, myth you can say, narrated to us by Mr. Alejandro Ratilla. And the story goes like this:
There was once a Kingdom ruled by a king. And the King had a royal cook named Eslaw.

One day he called on his loyal, most trusted cook. “Eslaw! Eslaw!”

And Eslaw came rushing to his king.

“Is there any other delicacy that you know of aside from what we usually eat for the past years?” asked the king.

He pat Elaw on his shoulders and continued, “You’re food are awesome, festive…extravagant! But if you eat the same dishes for how many years now, wouldn’t you just want to taste something different?”

So, after their conversation Elaw thought very hard. He went to the kitchen looked around trying to dig in any fresh ideas on what to cook when he saw a basket filled with fresh fish.

He took it, cleaned it, washed it, ripped only the meat sliced it into cubes and placed it on a bowl. He took the Tuba (fermented coconut nectar) pour it upon the fish, added some salt, suha to make it smell nice and to take away the slimy smell, he added more calamansi to really make sure there is no “langsa”, (fishy smell), garnish it with ginger and sili (chili) to give it a zest and spice, and lastly he squeezed a tabon-tabon extract into the dish to give it a savory flavor.

At lunch, the King heard of his royal chef’s experiment and cannot wait to taste them. So he took his queen by the arm and narrated the exciting news.
When they reached the royal table together with their little prince everything was set.

The king looked at the newest dish and he liked what he saw. He tried one and was astonished to the taste and texture of his Royal Chef’s latest discovery.

HE asked, “What a magnificent Food!”, and in vernacular said “Kini Law! Kini akong gipangita na kalami sa pagkaon! Kini Law! Maayo…maayo!”. (translation: “You got it (Kini), Law!(short for Eslaw) This is exactly the kind of yumminess that I’ve been looking for. You got it (Kini), Law! Good Job…Good job!”)

While the dish is being served, a young lady servant went to the kitchen to fetch some wine. An older lady servant asked her about the new dish and what was the name. To which she replied, “I think it’s Kini Law?”.

And so the news spread throughout the kingdom about the amazing Kini Law, by the Royal Chef Eslaw.

Reference Source: Kinilaw: A Philippine Cuisine of Freshness by Edilberto N.