Filipino-Inspired Pickled Fish

Recipe and photo by Tami Ganeles Weiser Yield:  6 servings
Prep Time:  25 minutes Marinating Time:  48 hours Cook Time:  0 minutes

Filipino-Inspired Pickled Fish

Filipino food isn’t terribly popular in the United States, yet I know many incredible Filipino and Filipino-American chefs and cooks who make delicious, flavor-packed dishes. (I am thinking of you, Victor and Pao!) I think it’s a wildly underrated cuisine—and I hope this recipe helps give it some well deserved love. Pickled fish is easy to make and is a great use for the omega-rich, fattier fishes. I grew up on pickled herring and salmon, but for the holidays, I’m always looking for a fresh twist; I was thinking of places where oily fish are common fare, and poof!—the Philippines came to mind. Bracing acidity is part of the Filipino palate, and it works incredibly well when chilled. If you can find mackerel (try an Asian market that sells fish for sushi), it’s my favorite. This is great as part of bagel and lox spread, and fun as an appetizer on rice crackers or served with some thick challah.


½ cup soy sauce

6 cloves garlic, peeled

Juice and zest of 3 large or 4 small limes

½ cup dark brown sugar, palm sugar or jaggery

2-inch piece fresh ginger, peeled

¾ cup white vinegar

1 teaspoon whole black peppercorns

4 large bay leaves

1 to 2 dried red chilies, optional

About 1 cup ice cubes

1-pound fillet of bluefish (skin removed), mackerel (skin on) or skinless California herring, bluefish, swordfish, or fresh sardines (see Kitchen Tips)

1 large sweet onion, peeled and cut into very thin slices (about 1/8th inch)

2 large tomatoes, cored and cut into ¾-inch chunks


  1. In a nonreactive saucepan set over medium heat, combine the soy sauce, garlic, lime juice and zest, sugar, ginger, vinegar, peppercorns, bay leaves, dried chili, if using, and cook, stirring occasionally, for 3 to 5 minutes, just until the sugar dissolves. Remove from the heat, add the ice cubes and stir. Allow to cool completely.
  2. Place a gallon-sized resealable bag into a mixing bowl. Using a sharp knife, slice the fish into ½- to ¾-inch cubes and place them into the prepared bag. Add the sliced onions and tomatoes and the cooled pickling liquid and seal the bag, removing any excess air as you do so.
  3. Refrigerate the bag, still in its bowl (to prevent leaks), for at least 2 days or up to a week, gently moving around the ingredients in the sealed bag once or twice a day. The fish has the best texture around the 2- to 3-day mark.  Be sure to remove the bay leaves and chilies, if using, before you serve.

Kitchen Tips

  1. When buying fish that will not be cooked through, it’s vital to understand the importance of safe temperatures and proper handling. Always ask the fishmonger if the fish has been properly frozen for eating raw. There is no “sushi-grade” fish, at least as noted by the Food and Drug Administration or the US Department of Agriculture—or any organization at all. It’s a self-serving marketing term. It may, however, be an indication that the fish is properly prepared and ready to be eaten raw, and that is very important to know. Crucial, in fact. No matter how the fish is labelled, you must ask the fishmonger or manager—not the counter person—if it has been frozen and defrosted at the prescribed temperatures and is safe and ready to eat raw, sushi style. Any good, trustworthy fishmonger will know and will tell you the truth. If they don’t (and you may well get sick) don’t ever go back.
  2. Note that fish that is pickled like this is generally safe for most people. The acid denatures  the fish, (that is, it changes its proteins chemically in a way that is similar to what happens when you apply heat), but it isn’t actually cooked, although it’s not exactly raw either. If someone at your table has a weakened immune system, even if it has been frozen properly, it might be best to avoid it. Uncooked fish can harbor bacteria and/or parasites that can cause illness. To learn more, read my post on the subject: Fish, Raw and Ready? You can also check out these articles:
  3. For safety, the rules regarding fish are :


    • Cook to an internal temperature of at least 145° F  or about 63° C.


    • At -4°F (-20°C) or below for 7 days (total time), or
    • At -31°F (-35°C) or below until solid, and storing at -31°F (-35°C) or below for 15 hours, or
    • At -31°F (-35°C) or below until solid and storing at -4°F (-20°C) or below for 24 hours.

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