Or, in Butuan City, from shoulder to spoon.
The waters around Mindanao yield seafood the likes of which we've not seen before. Butuan City isn't a major fishing port, but it's located just two hours from Surigao City, which sees its fare share of good catch, and less than half a day's drive from General Santos (or Gensan, as it's usually called), a major exporter of blue fin tuna, many of which end up on the auction floor at Tokyo's Tsukiji Market.
We traveled to Mindanao to eat seafood, in as much quantity and variety as we could. The minute we stepped inside Butuan City's breathtaking seafood market we knew we'd come to the right place.
The place is as pristine as any wet market dealing in fresh goods can possibly be: gleaming white tile-topped cement stall after stall displaying delicacies from the deep. It smells like the water its products came from. Even late in the afternoon, when many fish markets would be in a sorry state, Butuan City's is hopping, with shoppers still thronging the stalls.
Specifically, we went to eat kinilaw, kinilaw, and more kinilaw. The word 'kinilaw' is derived from 'kilaw', which refers to a way of preparing food - usually protein and, very often, fish - in vinegar or another souring agent. We had our eye on seafood kinilaw (Philippine ceviche, if you wish), and who better to prepare a dish of raw fish than a man who makes his living selling the stuff?
Leo and his wife Eva sell blue fin tuna and malasugue/malasogi (which, depending on where you are, can mean swordfish, sailfish, or marlin) at the Butuan City market. They are specialists - it's tuna and malasugue only (and at home, they eat seafood six days a week). Locals come to Leo for sashimi, which he slices with a covet-able knife that he bought at a Japanese market in Cebu, and they come for kinilaw. Leo is the Butuan City seafood market's indisputable kinilaw master.
We ordered up half a kilo of tuna, to eat right there among Leo's big-eyed fish heads and meaty fillets and perkily upright tails, and Leo and Eva good-naturedly set to work preparing ingredients and lining a couple of plates with banana leaves.
Vinegar is a common kinilaw souring agent. Cane and coconut palm vinegars are found throughout the Philippines, but in Butuan the preferred vinegar is made from nipa, a multi-stemmed palm that grows in brackish water. The 'sap' that is collected from the palm's flower stalk is called tuba, and tuba left to ferment turns into vinegar (distilled, it becomes laksoy, nipa liquor).
To make his kinilaw Leo uses bahal, nipa liquid that's past the tuba stage but is not quite yet vinegar. It's the color of honey, sour but not puckeringly so, and has a slightly alcoholic under note. Kinilaw connoisseurs agree that the best kinilaw is one that retains the freshness of the ingredients (kinilaw should be eaten right after the fish is added to the dish), and Leo prefers bahal over vinegar because it flavors the dish without 'cooking' the fish too quickly.
Leo's tuna kinilaw includes sliced cucumber, daikon radish, red onions, scallions, tomatoes, chilies, ginger, kalamansi, and a super-fragrant local lime called biasong. He flavors his bahal with tabon-tabon, a brown hard-shelled fruit that's said to remove fishy smells and prevent stomach upset.
It was the discovery of tabon-tabon halves, in the proximity of fish bones, during an archeological excavation in Butuan City in 1987 that led to the conclusion that kinilaw is at least a thousand years old, a purely indigenous dish in a cuisine with many foreign influences. (Butuanons also claim a long history; a local saying goes, 'Before there was the Philippines, there was Butuan.')
Sliced open, tabon-tabon looks a bit like whole halved nutmeg. The flesh is dry and firm, but easily scraped out of its shell with the back of a spoon.
For a half-kilo order of kinilaw Leo mixes the grated flesh of one tabon-tabon with about a quarter of the 1 cup of bahal he'll use for the kinilaw, massages it a bit into the liquid, then squeezes it in his hand to extract its flavor. (He uses the same technique, substituting grated coconut for tabon-tabon, when he makes malasugue kinilaw. 'Tabon-tabon for tuna, coconut for malasugue', he says.) Then he strains the flavored bahal into the unflavored, discarding tabon-tabon innards.
While an assistant trims the fish Leo slices and then places in a bowl daikon, cucumber, and red onion. Before slicing the biasong, or local lime, he taps them all over with the back of his cleaver. From several feet away, with a lot of fish between us, the almost flowery scent of the lime is as strong as if it were waved right under my nose. He grates over ginger, then adds finely chopped chili, a touch of sugar, and a pinch of salt. He squeezes kalamansi juice into the tabon-tabon/bahal mixture and then adds it to the other ingredients, then sets it aside to tend to the fish.
He carefully cuts the tuna into two-centimeter cubes, then adds them to the bowl and gives a quick stir
before turning the kinilaw out onto a plate, laying sliced tomatoes and scallion greens on its surface,
and finishing with a final flourish of grated ginger. It's at this point that Leo's nephew, who works elsewhere in the market and has been standing silently next to Dave watching his uncle in action, pipes up: 'He's a master, you know.'
To go with the kinilaw, Eva sources cooked kamote (cassava) and banana from elsewhere in the market. It turns out to be a brilliant pairing - a balancing of the sourness of a dish with sweetness from fruit or vegetable eaten alongside that's very Filipino.
Standing there at 9am surrounded by the bustle of Butuan City's seafood market, eyeball to eyeball with fish heads almost the size of our own, listening to seafood-toting porters clear a path through crowded aisles with a 'sssst ssssst', and alternating spoonfuls of kinilaw so fresh it might have jumped off the plate into our mouths with gulps of briny sea creature-scented air, we didn't want to be anywhere else. Stallside at Leo and Eva's must be, we think, one of the best places in the Philippines to eat kinilaw, a beloved Philippine specialty.
Need I say it? Leo's kinilaw is superb. There's a reason Eva took more than a few orders for kinilaw even as Leo was bringing ours together, and it had absolutely nothing to do with the camera-toting foreigner and his wife hanging out at their stall.
If you make it to Butuan City, head straight for Leo and Eva's stall. Kinilaw is dished up (to go, if you wish, fish packed separately from other ingredients) from about 9am, Monday through Saturday and a half day on Sunday.