Two things are ever-present on a Filipino table.  First, there’s always a plate of rice.  It’s either steaming hot or it’s fresh-out-of-the-fridge cold — leftovers from the day before, which are sometimes fried with lots of sea salt and garlic.  I grew up having rice three times a day and, on occasion even for a mid-day snack like back in those days when I would come home from school and wolf down a plate of fried hot dog or fried spam with a heap of cold rice before I dive in to do my homework.  Good times.

Aside from rice, there are always dipping sauces, which Filipinos call sawsawan [sou-sou-wuhn]; sawsaw [sou-sou] means to dip in Filipino.  Dipping sauces enhance and liven up the flavors of Filipino dishes, from soups and stews to fried and grilled meats.  Seasoning dishes doesn’t end in the kitchen but continues in the table where everyone gets the chance to fine-tune the flavors according to his or her liking.

What’s in a dipping sauce?  You start with the basic sauce: soy sauce, fish sauce, fish paste, shrimp paste, or vinegar.   Add garlic, ginger or onions for spice.  Add cayenne peppers for heat.  Add fruits or fruit juices like green mango, tomatoes, or calamansi for acidity.  There are no rules; it’s a veritable free-for-all.  The salty is mixed with the sour: shrimp paste with green mango. The sour is mixed with the hot: vinegar with cayenne peppers.  The ultimate goal is to create a sauce that will let the flavors of the dish, like chicken stewed in coconut milk or a simple grilled whole fish, to truly shine.

My favorite sawsawan is patis [puh-tis] or fish sauce mixed with calamansi.   Patis is the amber-colored fermented fish sauce made from mostly mackerels, sardines, scads, and herrings.  The pungent sauce is intensely salty and melds incredibly well with the biting citrus flavors of calamansiPatis with calamansi dramatically enhances the delicate flavors of grilled or fried fish.  Squeeze calamansi over a whole tilapia fresh off the grill and dip the sweet fish in calamansi-spiked fish sauce and you’ll be rewarded with a simple yet extraordinary meal.


Calamansi with Grilled Tilapia


Grilling Tilapia

whole tilapia or pompano, gutted, scaled and cleaned
sea salt
freshly ground black pepper
canola oil
calamansi or limes
fish sauce

Lightly coat the whole fish with olive oil to help prevent it from sticking to the grill. Generously rub and season the fish with sea salt and black pepper.

Gently lay the fish on a clean, hot, well-oiled grill. Grill until the fish is cooked through, around 5 to 8 minutes. Using a large spatula, flip the fish to grill the other side until the its is cooked through, another 5 to 8 minutes.

Squeeze calamansi on the grilled fish and serve hot with steamed rice, fish sauce and sliced calamansi.

Cooking Notes

1. Tilapia is my favorite fish for grilling or frying whole. It’s white flesh is firm with a mildly sweet flavor. I also love grilling whole pompano, which is also firm-fleshed and has a delicate flavor.

2. Make sure that the grill is clean, hot and well-oiled to help prevent the fish from sticking to the grill. A grill that is too hot may burn the fish skin without thoroughly cooking the meat.

3. Grilled freshly caught fish tastes incredibly good seasoned with just sea salt and black pepper. Add a spritz of calamansi or lime and then adjust the flavor by adding fish sauce.  Grilling is healthier than frying but I would never turn down tilapia or pompano that is perfectly pan-fried.  Calamansi and fish sauce are amazingly great with grilled or pan-fried pork chops and beef ribs, too.

4. Rufina is my choice of fish sauce, which is available in most Asian grocery stores and well-stocked American stores that sell Asian products.

5.  Calamansi is extremely hard to find in North America, more so in colder climates.  Limes or key limes are great substitutes.


Calamansi and Fish Sauce

  • Jean

    Jun, I knew we were friends for a reason. That’s my favorite sawsawan, too. I’ve even got my husband enjoying it now. So glad you’ve got your very own kalamansi tree to enjoy. :-)

    Grilled fish–what could be better to have with kalamansi and patis? Yum!

  • Jun Belen

    WOW, Jean! I’m so impressed that you got your husband to love patis!! That’s wonderful.

  • Annapet

    Jun, you make art with the humblest of things. I never though of hanging a patis/kalamansi poster, but now I want one.

    I don’t have tilapia in the freezer. You just made me thaw out a boneless bangus!

  • Jun Belen

    Thank you, Annapet. I’m thrilled you loved the kalamansi and patis — that’s eactly what I was going for. Simple everyday things can be beautiful if viewed differently, right?

    And thank you again for the kalamansi… there will be more posts! :-)

  • Stephanie M at Together In Food

    I’ve always wanted to try cooking whole tilapia but was always gun shy without a tested method–thanks for sharing this as I now feel confident about giving it a shot. Loved your description of after-school snacks; I used to eat rice with canned corned beef and a raw egg all mixed together!

  • Jun Belen

    Thank you, Stephanie! I thought I was the only one who loved rice for after-school snacks… there’s you, too! And I also love corned beef, by the way!!

  • Amy K.

    So simple! I will definitely have to give this a try! I also had the fried SPAM/hot dog with cold rice snack as a kid. Actually, even now, I will have this for dinner with a side of kimchi – gotta have veggies to make it a meal!

    By the way, your adobo recipe was a big hit in my household! It was my first time having it!

  • Jun Belen

    Thank you, Amy! WOW! I didn’t know that fried hot dogs and spam with cold rice has a huge fan base!!

    Try the tilapia, it’s very simple to make and really satisfying. And thanks for trying the adobo, glad you enjoyed it!

  • MissTdJ

    You distilled such essential Filipino flavors into this pure, simple, and perfect post. And I must applaud your skill at presenting the love-it-or-hate-it use of the humble fish sauce as the primary/singular flavoring, rather than as an additive to “round out” flavors. My husband could never understand why I’d add patis to fish (“It isn’t fishy enough for you?”), so thank you for showing how sublime this combination can actually be.

  • The Wife of a Dairyman

    I love your recipe for tilapia:) And as always….Beautiful photos! I’m so envious of your talent!

  • randy

    Yum, Yum… I love tilapia!

  • riceandwheat

    Yum! I have to admit that I don’t know much about Filipino food but I’m pretty sure I already love it, just from reading about it from you, Jean, Liren, etc. This dipping sauce sounds a lot like the Vietnamese nuoc cham, which is one of my favorite sauces of all time. Hmm, you just gave me another reason to be sad we don’t have a grill, Jun. :)

  • iya

    i love fried tilapia! and yes patis with calamansi ko rin gusto with red siling labuyo. tapos may kasasamang munggo with ampalaya/malunggay leaves and chicharon. wowowow!!!

  • Lael Hazan

    Just looking at those photos had me salivating, then I read the recipe! Fabulous. I wish I had your gift for photography, beautiful.

  • Jess @ B-more Balanced

    I just recently had kalamansi and patis at my Lola’s. We used the kalamansi from her own plant. I don’t know why it has taken me 27 years to try it but it’s definitely one of my favorites. Beautiful pictures!

  • AJ

    I love patis and calamansi or spicy vinegar with my fish. Sounds sooo good right now with tilapia and rice!

  • Mariko

    You can make even the ugliest fish look gorgeous.
    Kalamansi is so good. Wish I could find them.

  • Alvin

    I don’t eat tilapia, but the idea of dipping it in fish sauce with calamansi tickles my fancy, if not my palate. The slices of calamansi look so vivid in your picture.

  • Ana Allio

    Jun, you making me hungry and want to drive to chinatown here in Cleveland. Because that’s the only place I can buy live tilapia and the store will clean them for you. Where did you get the tree of calamansi? Have a great day .say hello to Dennis..we love you guys!!

  • Cecile

    where did you get you kalamansi? the pictures make me want to buy tilapia this weekend, clean the Weber Q and pick some kalamansi from my own tree

  • Ben

    Add kimchi to the rice with spam or hot dog, and that’s my childhood. Maybe with a bit of sesame oil and a raw egg yolk, if the rice is hot. Now you’ve got me obsessed with wanting to try calamansi!

  • Pingback: How to Make Chicken Arroz Caldo

  • Pingback: How to Make Calamansi Tart with Candied Calamansi

  • Pingback: How to Make Pesa (Boiled Fish and Vegetables in Ginger Broth)

  • Elodie Jane Amora

    fish sauce + calamansi = one of my fave sawsawan <3

  • Pingback: Grilled Tilapia with Calamansi « Green Basket

  • Manuel

    You had Tilapia, I had Galunggong dipped in Calamansi and fish sauce. I just had them as last nights dinner and have never felt so satisfied in a meal! I just have to fry galunggong as soon as I was able to find calamansi being sold here in Toronto (for the first time!), so I can have a taste of what it was back in the days in the Philippines. Pure heaven, I tell you. Thanks for sharing this recipe, I’ll have another reason to ask wifey about using calamansi and patis again for dinner!

  • Jun Belen

    Thank you, Manuel for writing.  So happy to hear that you found calamansi in Toronto.  Fried fish dinner with steamed rice, calamansi and patis is — you said it right — pure heaven!