A dish of pork and chilies stewed in coconut cream, Bicol Express gets a modern twist with the substitution of crispy pork belly for more texture and visual allure.
Bicol is a region in the south of Luzon, the largest island of the Philippines. Bicol’s cuisine rich in dishes cooked with coconut milk and chilies.
It’s easy enough to conclude that since Bicol Express is pork cooked with chilies in coconut milk, it must have originated from the Bicol area. Does it?
Origin of Bicol Express
We really ought to make distinction between the dish and its name. The dish most likely originated in Bicol. But the name Bicol Express was born in Manila.
Story has it that a Manila restaurateur, Cely Kalaw, created a spicy dish but didn’t have a name for it. A train traveling from Manila to Bicol passed by and its roar was heard by her brother who suggested that she name the dish Bicol Express.
Regional origin of the dish we call Bicol Express
So, the dish we know today as Bicol Express was born in Manila. Does that mean it’s not an authentic Bicolano dish?
The interesting thing is that Cely Kalaw, though a native of Laguna, moved to Naga City (in the province of Albay) as a child and grew up in the Bicol Region. And it is impossible to live in the area without getting introduced to dishes with coconut milk and chilies, and assimilating them into one’s psyche and lifestyle.
And there are so many variants of dishes with coconut milk and chilies — mostly vegetables but those with seafood are not all that rare. It is quite logical to assume that when Ms. Kalaw cooked pork with chilies in coconut milk in the restaurant kitchen, she was just subconsciously placing her own stamp on a template that was far older and larger than she was.
How we cook Bicol Express at home
We used to do it the usual way — saute the spices, add the pork pieces, let them brown in the oil slightly, add the coconut milk and just allow everything to cook long and slow. We have since modified our version of Bicol Express.
Crispy Pork Belly Bicol Express
- 2 tablespoons coconut oil
- 2 shallots peeled and chopped
- 4 cloves garlic peeled and chopped
- 1 two-inch knob ginger peeled and chopped
- 1 tablespoon shrimp paste
- 2 cups coconut cream divided
- 4 to 12 finger chilies (depending on how hot you like your Bicol Express) thinly sliced
- fish sauce
- 500 grams crispy pork belly oven-roasted or deep fried
- Heat the cooking oil in a pan.
- Saute the shallots, garlic, ginger and shrimp paste until aromatic, about five minutes.
- Pour in a cup of coconut cream.
- Add the chilies and about two tablespoons fish sauce.
- Stir and leave to simmer and reduce with the pan uncovered.
- Meanwhile, take the slab of pork belly and split into halves horizontally.
- Cut the meaty bottom portion into one-inch cubes and add to the simmering coconut cream sauce in the pan.
- Pour in another tablespoon of fish sauce (if your crispy pork belly is only lightly seasoned) and stir.
- Cover the pan and simmer for about ten minutes.
- Cut the remaining half of the pork belly (with the crispy skin) into one-inch cubes.
- Pour the rest of the coconut cream into the pan. Taste and add more fish sauce, if needed.
- When the mixture begins to simmer, add the remaining pork belly cubes. Stir a few times and turn off the heat.
- Transfer your crispy pork belly Bicol Express into a serving bowl, and optionally garnish with more chili slices before serving.