The last time I was in the Philippines was in 2008 for my brother’s wedding. I had been traveling to learn how to surf in the southern part of the country before the festivities and then had to travel up north to fulfill familial obligations right after. On our way to my father’s hometown of Ilocos Sur, my parents and I stopped at the Santa Cruz wet market to buy ingredients for that night’s dinner and provisions for the next few days. All the produce were incredibly fresh and I realized how much I missed the Filipino fruits and vegetables I don’t get to buy in New York City. I watched my dad as he negotiated and haggled with the sellers in his native dialect while I took photographs of the market’s different colors. I had to catch my breath when I saw how fresh the yellowtail fish were. Each fish cost roughly US$3 and my father had to hold me back from squealing in excitement so as not to get a higher price quote from the market ladies. They always say that you have to check for clear eyes when you buy fish to see how fresh they are. Can these be any more fresh?
When we arrived at my father’s family’s house, I had to follow the fresh fish to the kitchen to make sure that no one tries to cook them. Filipinos love their deep-fried anything, and not even fish with super clear eyes will stop them from cooking them. One of my cousins’ wife was in charge of the kitchen and I made her swear not to cook the fish and to fillet all of them right away to make kilawin, or Filipino ceviche.
My dad’s famous ceviche recipe requires a very pungent vinegar locally made in his hometown. I wanted to recreate it here in New York even without that very important ingredient. There is a white coconut vinegar available in Chinatown, but for my version, I used fresh lime juice and cured the fish for 15 minutes while I prepped the other ingredients.
I was trying to avoid turning on the stove or the oven during the heatwave and this dish came to mind after I harvested the second batch of greens from my garden. You can skip the greens here, but crunchy and chilled Persian cucumbers are a must. Sweet watermelons are aplenty in Harlem right now–I bought mine from the back of a truck parked on 147th Street.
It goes without saying that you absolutely need fresh fish here, so make sure you buy sushi-grade quality from a reputable fish monger. I used striped bass because that’s what looked the most fresh, but a thicker cut of halibut for double the price would have been more heavenly.
fillet from 1 striped bass, patted dry with paper towels, cut in cubes
juice from 2 limes
1 small jalapeño pepper, thinly sliced
1 small red onion, thinly sliced
watermelon, chopped into cubes
cherry tomatoes, halved
2 Persian cucumbers, chopped into cubes
a handful of salad greens
a handful of cilantro, finely chopped
1. In a glass bowl, cure the fish fillet. Mix the fish cubes with the lime juice, jalapeño and onion with some salt and pepper. Cure for 15 minutes in the fridge. Stir every 5 minutes to make sure the fish is well-covered.
2. While curing, combine the watermelon, tomatoes, cucumbers, salad greens and cilantro in a salad bowl. Toss with oil and season with salt and pepper.
3. The fish is cured if they look white and “cooked”. Divide fish among shallow serving bowls and toss gently with the vegetables. Drizzle with some of the fish-lime juice dressing.