Fire me up
Bicol Express is a fiery dish ”“ and I do mean fiery ”“ an explosive combination of green finger chilies and pork strips simmered in coconut milk (gata) until thick. I bow to Tita (Aunt) Cely’s culinary prowess, the genius inventor behind this dish; so adept is she in the kitchen that I’m sure she can make even chopped liver taste good (and she probably already has!).
The chili pepper used here is what I know as siling pangsigang – the long green chili used to spice up our native sour soup ”“ although I know some people know it as siling mahaba (long green chilies). Our local green chilies are really not that hot ”“ I liken them to jalapeÃ±os (perhaps they even are). It’s the tiny red ones you have to watch out for.
Bicol is a Philippine province known for its spicy dishes, most of which are cooked using gata. It’s mistakenly assumed that Bicol Express hails from Bicol, but it’s actually from Los BaÃ±os, a province just an hour’s drive away from Manila. The story is that Tita Cely and her brother Demitrio (Kuya Itring) invented Bicol Express as a companion dish to Laing (gabi [taro]) leaves and stalks boiled with ginger, chili and coconut milk). This was in the 1960’s when brother and sister owned The Grove restaurant. The socialites at the time loved the laing but complained it was too, ahem, “zippy” for their tastes. So Tita Cely and her Kuya Itring cut down on the peppers and created the Bicol Express to complement the laing for those who could handle more heat. As for the name, the new dish was christened as such when a train happened to chug by the restaurant bearing the name, “Bicol Express.”
Most of the Bicol Express dishes that I’ve seen in Manila are heavier on the pork strips with just a few slices of the green chili. It’s well known that Metro Manilans (with a few exceptions) cannot handle incendiary cuisine. But Tita Cely’s Bicol Express is enough to make a fire-breathing dragon out of anyone: it’s loaded with green chilies sliced on the diagonal, cooked with just a few pork strips and simmered in coconut milk until thick. Hit me! It’s a pyrotechnic invasion let loose in your mouth. I love it! Bicol Express is beat eaten with lots of white rice or laing, to temper the heat.
If you can take the heat, check out Market Man’s Bicol Express recipe.