The mild sweetness of coconut milk brings a sense of delight to the sharp notes of chili pepper and bagoong in the classic Bicol Express recipe. This contrast has long created a spell-binding richness in taste for the dish. And this has helped make it arguably one of the most popular Filipino dishes.
And righteously so, as it has all of the well-meaning components of classic savory Philippine cuisine. Not only does it contain a generous amount of meat in some succulent, juicy pork belly, but it is also enriched by a local favorite to season and bring some unique flavor to the dish– shrimp paste or bagoong.
Bicol Express, in all of its well-balanced spice and sweetness, also makes for an irresistible cold day meal. With a creamy, delicious stew containing ginger, and a generous amount of essential seasonings in salt and pepper, the flavors come together for the most comforting spoonful of meat and soup.
But the advantages of having a hot and spicy bowl of Bicol Express does not stop at its mouthwatering, meaty taste. It also contains some ingredients that are great for your body!
As mentioned earlier, the distinct bite and heat brought on by this dish can make it great for the colder seasons. But even if it could be perfect for a chilly day, the majority of Filipinos enjoy serving it in all seasons. Perhaps it is because of its advantageous amount of protein, making for a very satisfying and filling dish.
Pork is a fantastic source of not just protein, but also niacin, phosphorus and vitamin B6. In fact, in 3 ounces of pork, you can find more nutrients that are great for you. This includes zinc and potassium.
But it is not just the meat that brings some comfort to your health in this dish. One of our main flavor and texture components, coconut milk, has healthy micronutrients. These aid in decreasing the size of stomach ulcers, and can help in lessening inflammation. It also contains a great deal of protein and carbs to boost your energy.
However, this well-recognized love for the nutritious viand has brought about some controversy to the origin of the recipe. Because who else wouldn’t want to take credit for such a brilliantly formulated array of flavors?
The dispute over its history
This may come as a surprise, but the most widely credited origin of this spicy white dish is actually in Manila, and not Bicol. While most residents from the Bicol area argue that it came from them, most, including big names in the Philippine cooking industry, have said that Bicol Express was born in Cely Kalaw’s restaurant in the country’s capital.
In the 1960s, Kalaw decided to present a creamy dish with the slightest punch. After some struggle in entitling the dish, her ears caught the sound of the daily train headed to Bicol. And that was when she got the idea to name it after a train going the Manila-Naga route.
Apparently, this recipe hoped to be a less flavorful or spicy rendition of Laing. This is a local dish made of dried taro leaves, and similar to our dish of choice, rich coconut milk.
Bicol Express quickly grew in popularity. And soon, the dish began popping up in several other dining establishments in the country. But what most people didn’t know by then was that the dish did not exactly originate from the region in its own name.
A similar dish to Bicol Express from the region:
The argument held by most Bicolanos is that a recipe very alike to that of Bicol Express came from their place of residence. Ginataang Sili, otherwise known as Gulay na Lada, contains balao, which is a shrimp paste variation. It also has other similar ingredients like pork, and none other than coconut milk. Some have said that Kalaw may have gotten inspiration from Gulay na Lada. And this was especially to bring the heat down from her Laing recipe.
But at the same time, some have said that Kalaw never denied gaining inspiration from Bicolano dishes for her dish. They say it is still essentially a name she coined. And likewise, it was her own culinary invention as a result of experimenting in the kitchen, and gaining inspiration from other dishes.
Now if this narrative’s encouraged you to try your own hand at making some deliciously spicy pork belly infused with coconut milk in the kitchen, I have the recipe for you. Try making this classic Bicol Express recipe with me!
How to cook Bicol Express:
Get ready to make the creamiest pork dish with a bit of a kick! Start by taking out your pan. Proceed by combining minced ginger, crushed garlic, chopped onion, sliced pork, chopped chili pepper, and coconut milk. Mix everything together before turning-on the heat.
Once the mixture boils, you may add a cup of coconut cream and half of the bagoong alamang. Let the mixture cook using low heat until it reduces to a quarter.
Afterwards, we will add the rest of the coconut cream and adjust the flavor by adding more bagoong if necessary. Also add the Serrano peppers or long green pepper. Continue cooking in low heat until the sauce thickens. Make sure to serve this nice and hot, and you now have enough Bicol Express for 6! Also try serving it the traditional manner– with some steaming, white rice.
And if making this dish has gotten you longing for some similar recipes with a fiery bite, I have some recommendations. As mentioned earlier, the popularity of Bicol Express has brought about various adaptations of the spicy, velvety dish. Why not endeavor to make some of these in your own kitchen?
Some other delicious Bicol Express variations you might want to try:
Choosing the right protein for whichever savory dish is to be made can be a real head scratcher. But if you are looking for less fat in your Bicol Express, I’ve got the answer for you. This Chicken Bicol Express coats slices of tender chicken breast with the loving taste of coconut milk, garlic, chili pepper and bagoong alamang to name a few of its essential ingredients. And it does this with significantly less cholesterol and fat than pork.
You can probably count on a milder taste and texture for this variation. But if you are questioning any changes in flavor, this only makes your rich, creamy stew shine more to excite your palate.
If you’re looking to stay on the side of red meat, but aren’t all that interested in the higher fat content of pork belly, try this Pork Chop Bicol Express! This cut of pork works significantly well with some milky, rich coconut cream. This helps balance out the siling labuyo or the Thai chili’s spice.
Additionally, it is a recipe that is likely to leave you stuffed, with a satisfying amount of protein. I suggest the usage of thicker meat slices for this one. It works best with the sauce, while also making for a very filling meal.
Mixing in a bit of a kick into your crisp definitely works great with several Filipino savory dishes. And this variation using some golden brown lechon kawali is a perfect example of that. Our Crispy Bicol Express might slightly resemble sisig upon your first look at it. And that is because it similarly uses chili pepper and crunchy components for a unique flavor and texture.
However, this recipe stands out for its utilization of the spicy Bicol Express sauce with Knorr Ginataang Gulay Recipe mix and an abundance of Thai chili, as well as alamang. You also have the option of integrating some more chili pepper on your pot than indicated. That is, if you love a stronger amount of heat in your Bicol Express.
Mixing in some smooth, rich coconut milk with shrimp, squid and mussels, this Seafood Bicol Express is a spin to the classic you surely don’t want to miss out on. Skipping out on the meat, this is a healthier option if you would like to have your spicy, coconut stew dish. But it is still rich in protein from the various seafood ingredients we’ve incorporated.
This colorful array of shellfish and vegetables also gives us a graceful collaboration of flavours and textures. From the punch provided by Thai chili pepper to the varied flavors of semi-sweet mussels and firm squid, this creates a one of a kidn sensation for the taste buds. And you can make this dish without eating away at your schedule too much, as it only takes about 30 minutes to recreate at home!
This adaptation of Bicol Express is one I discovered from peers’ high praises of it. Featured on my “Bisita Kusina” segment, Gilbert “Bebet” Lainez introduced me to their recipe with a brilliant balance of spice and thick creaminess. It takes a bit more time to make, going past an hour, but this is to ensure the softest bits of delicious, flavorful pork belly.
Jalapeño peppers also bring a distinct punch to the dish, and works well with our succulent mix of sautéed yellow onion, garlic and ginger. Try Bebet’s fragrant, delicious take on Bicol Express!
Did you enjoy riding the Bicol Express train, exploring one of the best Filipino classic dishes? Let us know what you thought of this recipe, along with our other unique variations, in the comments!
Bicol Express Recipe
- Combine ginger, garlic, onion, Thai chili pepper, pork, and coconut milk in a pan. Mix well. Cover the pan and turn the heat to on. Let the mixture boil.
- Remove the cover. Stir. Add half of the bagoong and pour around 1 cup of coconut cream and a cup of water. Stir and adjust the heat to low. Cook until the sauce reduces to a quarter (around 50 minutes).
- Add the remaining coconut cream and bagoong alamang (as needed). Also add the Serrano peppers. Continue cooking in low heat until the sauce thickens (around
- Transfer to a serving plate and serve with warm rice.