What Is Bicol Express?

Karize Uy

Bicol Express is one of the most popular Filipino dishes, usually made of pork slices, coconut milk, and lots of chili peppers. The dish is usually made as a stew, with the spicy coconut sauce poured over some rice. It may have evolved from a dish called “gulay na may lada,” meaning vegetables with chili, which is a very similar dish, only it uses vegetables instead of pork.

Bicol Express was created in Manila, in the Philippines.
Bicol Express was created in Manila, in the Philippines.

It is very interesting to know that while the Bicol Express garners the name of the Philippine’s Bicol region, it actually did not come from there. The style of cooking, however, did originate from the region. Cely Kalaw, who was exposed to the Bicolano cuising during her childhood stay in the region, invented the dish in the district of Malate in Manila.

Bicol express can have coconut milk as an ingredient.
Bicol express can have coconut milk as an ingredient.

In several interviews, Cely Kalaw recounts that in the 1960s, she and her brother Etring launched a small restaurant in Malate called “The Grove – Luto ni Inay,” one of the first Filipino restaurants offering a buffet. When some of her customers began to complain that her “laing” — a very spicy dish made of taro leaves and coconut milk — was too spicy, she decided to create a milder version of that dish. In turn, she concocted a dish together with Etring made of chili, pork, and coconut milk, and thus Bicol Express was created. The dish was intended as a partner to the now tamer “laing,” especially for people who wanted more spiciness.

When Cely invited some of her friends and food critics to try out her new dish, she was yet to come up with a name for it. The inspiration for the name literally arrived when the train going to Bicol passed by near the restaurant. Etring suggested that they call the dish Bicol Express, and it has remained so ever since.

Aside from the pork slices, coconut milk, and green chilies, Bicol Express also consists of garlic, onion, and an ample serving of shrimp paste for flavoring. The green peppers can either be chopped or cooked whole, although the latter will give the dish a less spicy flavor. For people who have allergies to seafood, shrimp paste can be substituted by fish sauce or salt.

The Bicol Express is a unique Filipino dish, but its ingredients and cooking style are similar to that of other neighboring Asian countries. Its use of coconut milk as a primary ingredient can also be seen in Indonesian and Thai cuisine, probably because all three countries — including the Philippines — have tropical climates and have an abundance of coconuts. The fondness of chili peppers can also be seen as a common factor, as well as the use of shrimp paste.

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