How to Prepare Bicol Express, a Filipino Spicy Stew

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Black bowl on a table containing Bicol Express stew
Image: © Kravtzov

When it comes to food, I love consuming spicy dishes. My spice tolerance is quite decent, maybe slightly above the norm for a Filipino, so I won’t skip out on having Bicol Express for either lunch or dinner every chance I get.

This is a spicy meat dish that takes inspiration from the Philippines’ Bicol region. The region’s use of coconut milk and chilis in their cuisine is what brought Bicol Express into existence. Typically, it consists of coconut cream, coconut milk, pork meat, chilis, and shrimp paste.

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What’s interesting about this tropical dish is the history behind it. There are many stories surrounding the origin of this dish, so it’s quite difficult to pinpoint when exactly the dish came into existence.

However, what a lot of people tend to agree on is who first created and coined the term Bicol Express. That person is Cely Kalaw, a cook who grew up in Naga, Camarines Sur, which is part the Bicol Region. Then she moved to Manila and became a restauranteur.

Vegetarian version of Bicol Express stew on a banana leaf on a square wooden plate.
A vegetarian version of Bicol Express. Image: © junpinzon

During the late 60’s or early 70’s, she developed a knack for figuring out what her customers were looking for in a dish. She discovered that her customers at the restaurant were interested in laing, a spicy and savory dish that uses taro leaves, chilis, shrimp paste, and coconut milk, but many were unable to withstand the spiciness of the dish.

So, she created a new spicy dish that better catered to her customers’ taste buds. The dish had a lot of similarities with the laing, but had lower heat levels and a more savory taste to it.

As for how the dish got its name, the story goes that her brother was on his way to the restaurant to visit her. Upon arriving, Cely Kalaw was in the middle of thinking of a name for the dish, when her brother heard the sound of a train going by.

The restaurant was located near the railway line which went from Manila to Legazpi (also in the Bicol region) and the name of the train was the Bicol Express. And so, that’s how the dish got its iconic name.

Green version of Bicol Express stew in a white patterned bowl on a wooden table.
The colour of the stew is dependent on the types of chilies and condiments used. Image: © Fanfo

Some believe the dish to be much older. They suggest that the dish could go as far back as 2,000 years when Malay traders from Indonesia were exchanging goods and other valuables with the natives of the Bicol region. Considering the heavy use of coconut milk and chilis in Indonesian cuisine, it’s highly likely that it helped shape the region’s cuisine into what it is today.

Despite its unclear origins, Bicol Express has become the poster child for spicy dishes in the Philippines. And it has quite a few varieties, depending on which region or restaurant you go to in the Philippines. It also goes by another name, sinilihan, but not many use it because of how iconic and popular the name Bicol Express is.

If you want to try and recreate Bicol Express at home, here’s a typical recipe. The ingredients are easy to find, and the cooking process is simple.

Preparation Time: 10 minutes

Cooking Time: 40 minutes

Serving Size: 4 persons

Ingredients:

  • 2 pounds of cubed pork belly
  • 2 pieces of chopped scallions
  • 6 pieces of thinly sliced green chili peppers
  • 6 pieces of thinly sliced Thai chili peppers
  • 3 thumbs of crushed ginger
  • 3 cloves of crushed garlic
  • 4 cups of coconut milk
  • 2 cups of coconut cream
  • 2 pieces of chopped onions
  • 2 tablespoons of shrimp paste
  • 1 tablespoon of cooking oil

Instructions:

Before you start cooking, make sure that you have the right kind of shrimp paste on hand. Some recipes don’t go into detail with this, but choosing the right kind of shrimp paste will help you achieve the dish’s traditional flavors.

When buying shrimp paste at your local supermarket, the one that you’ll often see on the shelves is bagoong guisado or sautéed shrimp paste. As its name suggests, this involves sautéing shrimp paste with other ingredients, like garlic, onion, and sugar, to create a richer and more complex flavor profile.

Most don’t recommend using this when trying to cook Bicol Express, as it tastes too aggressive. It can also make your Bicol Express taste too salty or too sweet, depending on the brand. Sometimes, it will clash with the other ingredients in the dish, resulting in an unpleasant aftertaste and a bitter smell.

What you want in this dish is the plain, uncooked version of shrimp paste or bagoong alamang. If that’s not available, you can swap it out for a similar version called bagoong isda which uses fish instead of shrimp. You can also use hibe, or dried shrimp, as an alternative option.

After you obtain the right condiment for this dish, it’s time to start cooking.

First, heat the oil in a wok or a deep pan. Then toss in the crushed garlic and ginger, as well as the chopped onions. Sauté these ingredients for about three to five minutes.

Next, add the cubed pork belly to the mix. Continue cooking for another five minutes or until the pork belly is no longer raw and pink.

Before you proceed to the next step, make sure to taste-test the shrimp paste that you bought. If it’s too salty for your liking, you can either squeeze out the excess brine or add a little bit of water to help dilute the saltiness.

After doing so, add the shrimp paste and the sliced chili peppers to the pan. Let these cook for around two minutes while stirring continuously to help impart their flavor and aroma to each other.

Next, pour the coconut milk into the pan and let it simmer over low heat for ten minutes or until the pork is tender. While that’s happening, pour in the coconut cream slowly. Stir the broth while doing this to prevent the coconut cream from separating.

Then bring it to high heat and let it boil until the oil starts coming out. If you want the broth to have a thicker consistency, let it simmer instead until you achieve the desired results.

Before taking it off the stove, make sure to give the dish a taste. Because of how salty shrimp paste already is, you probably won’t need to add any more salt to it. However, you can adjust the flavor using pepper.

For those who want more heat, you can add some more sliced chili peppers to the dish until you achieve your desired spiciness. Add some water if the dish becomes too salty for your liking or if the broth becomes too thick.

The best way to enjoy Bicol Express is to have it with a bowl of steaming white rice. And if you have leftovers, you can store them for up to a week inside your fridge using an airtight container. You can also store it in your freezer to further prolong its shelf life.

What’s great about this dish is that you’re not limited to just pork belly. You can swap it for other cuts of the pig, though the cooking time will slightly vary depending on how long it takes for the meat to cook and tenderize.

Additionally, if you’re not a fan of pork, you can use either chicken meat or beef when cooking this dish too. Seafood, like fish and squid, and tofu are good substitutes as well. Others skip out on the meat entirely and use it as a soup on the side.

You can also add vegetables to this recipe, like green beans, long beans, and eggplant. I prefer having kalabasa, or winter squash, in my Bicol Express if I want it to look like a well-balanced dish.

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