Bicol Express is a popular Filipino dish in which the slices of pork meat is cooked with coconut milk, shrimp paste, and chili pepper. There's a belief that this dish was adapted from a Bicolano dish called "Gulay na may Lada", meaning 'vegetable with chili'. Their main difference is quite very obvious: Bicol Express uses pork while "Gulay na may Lada" uses only vegetable.
It's very tempting to assume that Bicol Express originated from Bicol, a region located in the southernmost tip of Luzon in the island of Philippines, because the 'first name' of the dish was named after the place. However, history narrates that this dish originated in Malate, Manila. It was invented by a restaurant owner named Cecilia "Tita Cely" Villanueva Kalaw who was a native from Laguna. Tita Cely was born in Los Banos, Laguna but spent most of her childhood days in the region of Bicol where she learned how to cook most of the delicious Bicolano dishes. In the 1960s, Tita Cely and her brother, Demetrio "Kuya Etring" Kalaw, opend a restaurant in Oregon St., Malate, Manila which they named it as "The Grove Luto ni Inay". In several interviews, she told that some of their customers complain about their "laing" entrée dish as being too spicy. It was at that time that she decided to create a new dish with coconut milk which she believed suitable to the taste of the people in the area where her restaurant is located. She created a magical dish and they named it Bicol Express, named after the name of a train that passes their house which travels from Manila to Bicol and vice versa.
After reading some of the comments below, I felt glad because I learned new things about this wonderful recipe of Bicol Express. Boy Palencia in comment #31 is right in saying that the authentic recipe of Bicol Express uses long chilli pepper (siling haba) instead of the Philippine bird's eye pepper (siling labuyo). However, if you do not have long chili pepper in your area, for practical reason, Thai chillies, Jalapeño pepper, Serrano pepper, Anahiem chili as well as Korean pepper can be used as substitute. One of the techniques in minimizing the chilliness of the pepper is by soaking it in salted water for 15 - 30 minutes, and then rinse.
Tita Cely once replied in one of her interviews, "It's actually a separate dish. One could either mix it with the laing or just add a bit of it (chili dish) according to one's taste". This kind of reply gives me the idea and impression that Bicol Express in open to some adjustment according to one's taste in terms of chiliness and, perhaps, saltiness. I hope this idea and impression will enlighten Nick in comment #30.
I am also thankful to Cindy's constructive comment in comment #29 because her comment gives me a new perspective in cooking a better Bicol Express in the future. As for the rest, I'll just have to accept in good spirit that the recipes in this website, somehow, has help you in your cooking experience.
- 2 lbs pork belly; cut in slices
- 1/2 cup of Philippine bird's eye pepper(siling labuyo) or long chili pepper (siling haba)
- 3 cups coconut milk
- 1/2 cup sauted shrimp paste
- (bagoong alamang)
- 4 cloves garlic; minced
- 1 small onion; chopped
- In a saucepan, sauté garlic and onion. Drop the pork and bird's eye pepper.
- Continue sauteing until pork starts to render fat and edges turn to brown.
- Add sauted shrimp paste and stir, then pour the coconut milk (you may pour gradually in preference to the amount of sauce you want).
- Simmer and cook until pork is tender and oily consistency is achieved. Serve hot!