I always thought a Cebuano “inun-unan” was a simple fish stew made with vinegar and ginger. My grandmother used to use smaller types of fish, like the really flat ones they sometimes call sap-sap or bilong-bilong. My wife’s family cook also used to make a version similar to this… some water, lots of ginger, vinegar, peppercorns and possibly some garlic or onions. The taste was an acquired one. I don’t think too many people could plunge into a pot of this in their adult years without some difficulty. Sour, watery and redolent with fish stock essence, this is a simple yet incredibly satisfying dish. In our home, sometimes this was considered back of the house food, but my mom was a great fan of inun-unan, and that is how it made it to our luncheon meals. I wasn’t terribly fond of this dish growing up, and now I think it wasn’t the sourness (I love sour) but rather, it was working around the bones…
I am in Cebu at the moment, and we decided to make some inun-unan, and Victor was tasked with cooking it his way… The inspiration? Some palayoks we found in the market that we had just seasoned… The BEST way to make an intensely flavored inun-unan is in a clay pot… Into the pot Victor threw in some onions, lots of garlic, long green chillies (darker than the siling pangsigang), salt, a touch of vetsin, vinegar, black peppercorns and some water. Surprisingly, he used no ginger, and when asked said he didn’t like the taste of inun-unan with ginger… Apparently, there are several places in Cebu that make this dish without ginger, and that fact was a suprise to me as I had always assumed inun-unan had ginger.
To jazz things up a bit, Victor added a touch of vetsin, some sliced talong, sliced ampalaya and a few more chillies and this went on a hot wooden fire for about 20 minutes, until the fish was just perfectly cooked. The broth had taken on the fish essence and had just slightly thickened, redolent with flavor in such a brief cooking period. Served with lots of steamed rice, this was excellent eating. Exactly the taste I remember, except it was missing the ginger I personally associate with the term inun-unan. Maybe next time, I will try my hand at a simpler version with just ginger, vinegar, water, black peppercorns and salt. This was definitely soul food. Comfort food. Yum.