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Monday, June 28, 2010

Tweaking a Hometown Dish

Just last Friday, I conceded to an officemate who is one of my loyal customers at Heaven's Country Kitchen, to whip up a fish dish for lunch. And so that same night, I consulted some references and took note of past reactions of my other customers regarding fish dishes we've already prepared, and decided to try something familiar but different. During these past occasions, I've learned that people from Rizal aren't really adventurous, and neither are they into fish or any kind of seafood. Must be the mountain ranges that make one crave only for saucy meat dishes to keep warm from the cool air.

One recipe that caught my eye though was for a Bicol Express Rice that is part of this compilation of the Philippine edition of Good Housekeeping magazine. Bicol Express has turned out to be one of the popular dishes being prepared today, although surprisingly, its origins are not strictly from the province of Bicol.

I claim Bicol to be my province considering that both my parents came from there, more specifically, in the province of Albay. I recall living there for 2 years where I attended pre-school at the now defunct St. Benedict's Academy in Guinobatan while we lived in my mother's family compound where we wake up everyday to a great view of the perfectly coned - and still very active - Mayon Volcano. We would return to this province almost every summer thereafter when my parents would pack everything up and my father would drive us via the South Road for 10 hours from our home in Las Pinas.

The Bicol region is located in the the southernmost tip of the Luzon island of the Philippines and is known for a cuisine that is distinctly different from the rest of the country by its people's incessant need to cook all their meals in coconut cream and/or milk and chilies. And then, it is here where the pili nut is found and made into all kinds of pastry from budin to pili brittle. It is the home of the "pinangat", a bundle of fresh gabi leaves simmered in coconut milk and cream and flavored with either a slab of pork, fish or shrimps. It is referred to by the Manila crowd as "laing", although they're not one and the same. "Laing", which also originated from Bicol, is a vegetable dish made also from gabi leaves, but the difference is that the leaves are air-dried first and cooked loosely in coconut milk, and not tied up like the "pinangat".

Bicol Express, on the other hand, is a dish composed of sliced pork sauteed first in onions and garlic, a few minced ginger and then simmered in coconut milk, to be followed by thinly sliced chilies Tagalog or siling haba for that bitingly hot flavor. Seasoning would just be salt and pepper. Other versions call for sauteing shrimp paste (or bagoong alamang) in the concoction for that added character, and as my father would sometimes do it, opting out the coconut milk and just saute the chilies and pork together as a way to boost appetite over our Sunday lunch.

Bicol Express is said to be a dish developed by Cely Kalaw for her Grove Restaurant in the district of Malate, Manila in the 1960s. (More of this can be found in It was named so because at the time she cooked it, they heard a train passing by from the station in Paco, Manila.

For my purposes though, I thought the idea presented by the Good Housekeeping compilation was very promising. The recipe called for preparing the chilies into a paste and then mix it with rice that was previously simmered in water and coconut milk. Nevertheless, I took it a step further by retaining the pork version and poured it over the rice as additional sauce then served it simply with Crispy Fried Tilapia. In a word: Divine.

The Recipe:

For the rice -

2 small onions, halved with skin on
1 green bell pepper
6 cloves garlic
4 hot green chilies
1/4 of a chicken bouillon cube
1/4 cup hot water
1/4 cup cold water
1 cup uncooked rice
1 cup water
1 cup coconut milk

For the pork sauce -

1 slab pork belly, sliced in strips
4 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 onion, minced
1 tsp. ginger, chopped finely
1 cup coconut milk
salt & pepper to taste
a few slices of the green chili

Preparing the rice: 1. Bake onions, bell pepper, garlic and chillies until their skins are charred in the oven at 350 deg. Cool then peel the vegetables and remove their seeds.
2. In a bowl, dissolve the chicken bouillon in the hot water. Add the cold water.
3. Chop the grilled vegetables then put in a blender with the chicken broth and puree until smooth. Set aside.
4. Boil the rice with the remaining water. When rice has almost absorbed all the water, pour in the coconut milk and mix well.
Continue cooking the rice until done.
5. Fluff the rice with the fork then toss in the pureed vegetable mixture. Let flavors set while you prepare the sauce.

Cooking the sauce: 1. Saute garlic, onion & ginger in 2 tablespoons of corn oil. Add in the pork belly and continue sauteing until pork is browned.
2. Pour the coconut milk and let simmer until pork is cooked through and sauce is slightly creamy. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Add in the slices of green chili when done.

When plating this dish, shape the rice as desired on a plate, pour in the pork sauce over it and serve with fried tilapia fish. The crispiness of fried fish really brought out the creamy and spicy flavors absorbed by the rice. According to my friends who tasted this dish, they couldn't help but eat everything up. This is a pretty good idea to serve to a crowd and I'm pretty sure it'll become a house special with me.


  1. Great post!My Mom is also from Bicol though I never had the chance to visit my relatives there.I grew up eating "gata" dishes and this was my favorite.if you wont mind I'd love to guide Foodista readers to this post.Just add the foodista widget to the end of this post and it's all set, Thanks!

  2. Great post! The pork looks especially flavorful!

  3. @Alisa: Thanks for the invite! Im already a member of Foodista because of you. Great site.

    @A Spicy Perspective: Thank you for commenting. Sorry have not been checking in lately. Hope to see more of you here though. : )