Bicol express is another favorite of most Filipinos because of its spicy kick to it. Its creamy texture comes from the coconut milk that is cooked together with slices of pork, shrimp paste and lots of chilies. For food loving Filipinos this dish is enough to send you from a roller coaster of hot and spicy savory experience to a gastronomic delight. It is bursting with a flavorful balance of spiciness that comes from chilies and a creamy consistency from the coconut milk that penetrates the pork to give it a rich flavor and a bit of sweetness. Meanwhile, the shrimp paste gives an equal taste of saltiness to the spiciness of this dish. The equilibrium of taste for this dish is why it is loved by Filipinos worldwide. Pork seems to be used quite popular in Philippine, you can read out how to make pork Sinigang article if you like this Bicol meal.
The train that goes to Bicol is where the name Bicol Express was coined. Bicol is located at the southernmost tip of Luzon in the Philippines. Chilies and coconut milk are indigenous in this region. It is also known for its variety of spicy dishes. No wonder that a mere mention of Bicol express one may think of this dish, for obvious reasons as somehow originated from this place. But food historians and food geeks will otherwise dispute on this claim of most Bicolanos.
The inventor of this dish, Tita Cely Kalaw was a natïve of Laguna but spent much of her childhood in Bicol where she learns to cook dishes from this region. It’s a reason why she was able to concoct this dish with such expertise by using the region’s homegrown coconut milk and chilies. History has it that in 1960’s, Tita Cely Kalaw and his brother have opened a restaurant in Malate, Manila. They received complains that one of their dishes in their menu which is the “laing” as being too much spicy for their customers. In response to this, she created this extraordinary dish that can be eaten as a separate dish or mixed with the “laing”. She then named it as Bicol Express after a train that travels from Manila to Bicol and vise versa that passes from their house.
It is interesting to know that this dish has no amount of foreign influences that is attached to its history. The ingredients that were used in concocting this dish are all homegrown. Most of all it is so simple and easy to cook without compromising its delightful taste. It is very much Filipino in every way. The birth of this dish is evidence of Filipino’s ingenuity, great creativity and enormous talents that comes from the desire to serve and satisfy each palate the Filipino way.
I had my share of wonderful experience in meeting this dish. There was a small eatery that was located outside the office where I once worked. It was always jump packed with hungry people. I got curious and would like to find out what’s the buzz all about. Surprisingly, it was the Bicol Express that people were going crazy about and that they kept coming back every lunch and dinner time. Turned out I was hooked up too. The owner was very friendly enough to have a small chat with me and told me that the secret of cooking this amazing dish is in the coconut milk and chilies. But I think it’s a balancing act of every ingredient in it and will take such talent to make this one dish a super hit.
In terms of variations for this dish, some have included vegetables to the original recipe like green bean or winged bean (sigarilyas) and water spinach (kangkong). I was able to encounter a restaurant that infuses pineapples for this dish. I have tried it and the taste was very fascinating. It has the usual spiciness and creaminess to it but the twist is in the taste of pineapple which gives it a sweetness balance to its spiciness. In this recipe, we will cook the traditional Bicol express and add the pineapple twist to it. Having pineapple on this dish is a great addition if you are a fan of the sweet spicy taste. It is also good if you are introducing this dish to children that have a medium tolerance for spicy foods. The sweetness from pineapple counters some of the spicinesses but will still taste a little kick to it. But you can always leave the pineapple out and just taste the good ole hotness of this dish. The pineapple for this dish is optional.
4 - 5 people
Bicol express ingredients
- 1 kilo (2 lbs) of pork belly or shoulder, cut into bite size
- 1 Tbsp oil
- 3 cloves garlic, chopped
- 1 onion, chopped
- 1 ½ cups (375 ml) of coconut milk
- 1 cup water
- 2 Tbsp of shrimp paste
- 2-3 pieces of long chilies
- 3-4 piece of bird’s eye chilies
- ½ cup of pineapple tidbits (optional)
- Fish sauce and pepper to taste
How to make Bicol express in 10 steps
1. Get all ingredients ready
2. Heat oil in the pan
3. Sauté garlic and onion in the pan one at a time.
4. Add the pork. Sauté until it becomes slightly brown.
5. Then add in the coconut milk. Boil until meat is tender.
TIP: Add water if the sauce becomes thick and the pork is not yet tender.
6. Once meat is tender, add the shrimp paste.
TIP: Shrimp paste that comes from the bottle is already seasoned so you might want to adjust or skip the amount of fish sauce and pepper that you will put in.
7. Add in also the fish sauce.
8. Put the chilies in.
TIP: Aside from long chilies and bird’s eye chilies, you can also use whatever chilies are available to your country like Jalapeno, Thai chilies or Korean pepper as a substitute. You can always adjust the spiciness depends on your tolerance.
9. Mix in the pineapple. This is optional. You can always leave this part out if you don’t want to incorporate some sweetness into this dish.
10. Enjoy eating.
It is always said that you can get to know the culture of one’s country and its people by tasting and learning the dishes that are most close to their hearts. This is exquisitely expressed in Bicol express. It is without a doubt that this dish represents a true Filipino. With so many Filipinos that are migrating or working broad, this is one thing that they truly missed in the Philippines. Nevertheless, cooking it is already accessible to many fellow Filipinos around the globe.
Had you had an excellent time cooking this dish? We are glad that we can impart some little knowledge regarding this dish and if you truly enjoyed the wonderful taste of it, we would like to hear any suggestions or comments or any feedback about our featured dish. Share with us your experience and maybe some anecdotes having this dish on your table. If you find this recipe helpful, please do share it with your family and friends so they will also enjoy and experience this delightful dish. As always we continuously thank you for dropping by and taking a peek at our recipe. Have a great day to all!
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I’m a food enthusiast and an explorer of good taste from Philippines. I invite you to create an awesome adventure to the recipes I prepared as we take on the journey of getting to know the evolution behind the food that we love through its rich heritage and the amazing people that creates it.