Dilis or Anchovies are a very common fish in Philippine markets. There are at least a dozen different species of anchovies (Family Engraulidae) in Philippine waters, but itâ€™s difficult to identify to species level so I will group them all together under the anchovy family. Usually found close to shore in estuaries, reef sheltered areas and shallow waters, they feed on plankton and probably multiply faster than rabbits. Also known as anchois in French and boqueron in Spanish, anchovies are common in the Mediterranean Sea, Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. Most commonly seen in the west packed with oil in small flat tins or alternatively in bottles with lots of salt, their intense flavor is used in Italian and French cooking and is a critical ingredient in modern Caesar salad dressing!
In the Philippines, anchovies are a key ingredient for making patis or fish sauce (essentially fermented anchovies that are strained and bottled). Anchovies are also enjoyed raw or pickled in vinegar as well as fried or cooked in numerous different ways depending on the region. In a Batangas market recently, there was an abundance of reef fresh anchovies perfect for Kinilaw na Dilis or Anchovy Seviche. The first unsavory (at least for me) step is to clean the bloody buggers. You have to take each fish and remove the fillets while discarding the head, guts and bones. The dilis fillets are then washed and drained of excess water. It looks easy enough but is highly labor (not to mention smell) intensive and I would rather order a Big Mac instead of doing this step myself, frankly. So someone else, who is fond of the sea and its contents, cleaned the fish and prepared this dish. Hence, Kinilaw na Dilis a la Seaman.
To make the kinilaw, wash the cleaned anchovies in a bath of vinegar and squeeze gently to drain. Repeat this step. Locals love using coconut vinegar but you can use any delicious native vinegar. You will notice that the anchovy fillets whiten with each successive vinegar bath as you are effectively cooking the fish without any heat. Place the washed and cleaned anchovies in a bowl, add peeled and smashed ginger, thinly sliced red or white onions, chopped siling labuyo or birdâ€™s eye chillies, rock salt and lots more vinegar to essentially pickle or â€œcookâ€ the dilis fillets. Add freshly cracked black pepper if you like. Some folks like to add a bit of kalamansi or dayap to brighten the flavor. Taste to ensure there is enough salt or heat (spice from the peppers). Allow the flavors to seep into the vinegar and anchovies and serve soon after. I am told this is best eaten with leftover rice (bahaw) and I guess itâ€™s because this rice is drier and will sop up all the great vinegar and spices that come with this dish. I also like to eat this with tomatoes or sour green mangoes with salt as a side dish.