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No, they‘re not always interchangeable

The terms ‘kinilaw’ and ‘kilawin’ (also spelt ‘kilawen’) are often used interchangeably, but did you know that the words actually pertain to distinct cooking styles? Used to describe an acid-cured Filipino dish or cooking method not unlike the Peruvian ceviche, kinilaw and kilawin are commonly believed to be synonymous. Learn more about the heritage methods and how they differ, below:

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Photo Cottonbro / Pexels
Above Photo: Cottonbro / Pexels

Of the two, kinilaw is more akin to the popular Peruvian dish. As defined by chefs and restaurateurs Nicole Ponseca and Miguel Trinidad in their James Beard Award Finalist cookbook, I Am A Filipino: And This Is How We Cook, “kinilaw means to cook in “liquid fire”—aka citrus or vinegar, as with ceviche”. Although the kinilaw method is most often used on fish, kinilaw dishes with vegetables, meat, and shellfish are also popular. Whatever the viand, the quick cure is often followed by the addition of fruit like calamansi, pineapple, or pomelo, as well as coconut milk or fish sauce.

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In the Philippine Food, Cooking, & Dining Dictionary, Edgie Polistico details numerous preparations of kinilaw, from kinilaw na alimasag (using blue crab) to kinilaw na tanigue (with mackarel) and even kinilaw na lato (a fresh sea grape salad). “We believe that the first real Filipino dish was kinilaw,” proclaim Ponseca and Trinidad, referencing lauded food writer Doreen Fernadez. “Her first book was Kinilaw, and in it she notes that kinilaw is the oldest known cooking technique in the Philippines.”

Polistico further comments that the historic dish is known as kinilaw in Cebuano, Boholano, Waray, Ilonggo, and Negrense; as lataven in Ivatan; and as quilain in Capampangan. Continuing, he also clarifies that it is occasionally known as kilawin in Tagalog, hence the confusion.

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Differentiating kinilaw from kilawin, Ponseca and Trinidad state that the latter indicates “starting with something cooked, like grilled meats, and tossing them in vinegar.” Thus, unlike kinilaw which technically speaking starts with raw seafood, meat, or vegetables, kilawin may involve cooking said ingredient prior to treating it with acid. For example, the Caviteño dish of the same name is composed of boiled beef tripe and grilled pancreas then “cooked and seasoned with spiced up vinegar,” Polistico describes. Similarly, the Ilocano kilawen kalding starts with “charcoal-broiled goat skin goat’s meat and liver marinated in vinegar or calamansi with ginger, onions, and soy sauce.”

Given the diversity of languages in our archipelago, variations in jargon are all but expected. Nonetheless, these inconsistencies can be confusing. One notable example is toyo and patis, two staple sawsawan in Filipino cuisine that refer to soy sauce and fish sauce in Tagalog—but in many parts of Visayas, its designations are reversed: toyo refers to fish sauce, and patis refers to soy sauce. In the case of kinilaw and kilawin, the definitions are more flexible and create a much larger grey area. The dish known as kinilaw nga nangka, popular in Cebu and Bohol is more like the family of kilawin dishes since the jackfruit is first boiled and simmered before it is washed in coconut vinegar. The Batangueño and Tagalog kilawing baboy complicates the definition even further, as Polistico explains, “This dish is not actually served raw. It so happened that the ingredients used are similar to those used in the conventional kilawin through all are thoroughly cooked here.” 

On the whole, the definitions of kinilaw and kilawin may overlap in certain locales. However, kinilaw generally refers to a dish that features a raw ingredient cured in acid, while the featured ingredient in kilawin might be boiled, grilled, or briefly cooked in another preparation before being dressed in citrus or vinegar.


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