Why It Works
- Searing the pork browns the meat and contributes to a flavorful stew.
- A combination of coconut milk and cream balances the heat of the chiles.
My first encounter with Bicol express―a fiery pork stew made with garlic, onion, siling mahaba (long chiles), coconut milk, and balaw (also spelled balao, which is a fermented shrimp paste) or daing (a catch-all for sun-dried fish)―took place while I was attending university in Manila. Living in the dormitory let me connect with people from all over the Philippines, a diverse country encompassing over 7,000 islands. At the start of one school year, my friends and I each made a dish that was unique to our region to share with one another. My friend, Gretel, brought her dad’s Bicol express and warned us that it was very spicy. Throwing caution to the wind, I took a heaping spoonful. I slowly turned bright red, while everyone stared at me wide-eyed as I started running around in search of something to quench the heat. My friends couldn’t help but laugh and proceeded to poke fun at me for the rest of the year.
There are two origin stories surrounding the creation of Bicol express. The Bicol region in the central Philippines, or Bicolandia as it’s lovingly called, is known for its prolific use of chiles and coconut cream and for dishes that skew towards the spicier end of the spectrum. The local cuisine has a dish known as gulay na lada, made primarily with chiles and other aromatics, which Bicolanos believe served as the inspiration for Bicol express. On the other hand, Virginia Roces de Guzman and Nina Daza Puyat write in their book The Philippine Cookbook that Cely Kalaw, a restaurant owner in Manila’s Malate district who was raised in Bicol, invented the stew in the 1960s. As the story goes, patrons at Kalaw’s Grove restaurant were complaining that laing (a similar dish made with stewed taro leaves) was much too spicy. Kalaw took the dish, toned down the chiles, and added pork belly―creating Bicol express for customers who wanted a subtle, rather than mouth-blistering, heat (the name was coined by Kalaw’s brother after the famous overnight train that ran from Manila to nearby Bicol). Since then, Bicol express has spread throughout the country and abroad, becoming a fixture on Filipino restaurant menus and dinner tables; even in Bicol, gulay na lada now goes by Bicol express.
During my 50-states-in-50-weeks pop-up kamayan tour, where I featured the pre-colonial tradition of kamayan, or eating with one’s hands, I was on the hunt for regional recipes to include on my rotating menu. I recalled my memory of Bicol express and reached out to Gretel for her dad’s recipe. She replied that the recipe should have equal parts pork and chiles. I’ve tweaked the ratio to suit my lower tolerance for capsaicin heat by using a smaller amount of chiles, and settled on the following ratio: one part fresh Thai chiles and three parts pork shoulder. Bear in mind that while the recipe calls for 10 Thai chiles (which you can substitute with jalapeño peppers), the addition of rich coconut milk and coconut cream significantly tempers the chile heat. As for the balaw, which is hard to source in the US, I use ginisang bagoong, an umami-packed fermented shrimp paste that is sautéed with onion, garlic, vinegar, and sugar, to infuse the stew with a slightly sweet, more complex flavor.
Bicol express is a great pulutan, a Filipino term for dishes that go well with alcohol, because of its spicy, salty, and creamy notes. Served with rice and a cold beer, this savory stew can be enjoyed as an appetizer, a side dish, or as an entrée.
- 2 tablespoons (30g) coconut oil, virgin or refined
- 3 pounds (1.3kg) boneless, skinless pork shoulder, trimmed and cut into 1-inch cubes
- 1 medium red onion (8 ounces; 225g), roughly chopped
- 30 medium garlic cloves (150g), minced
- One 3-inch knob fresh ginger (60g), peeled and finely chopped
- One 13.5-ounce (400ml) can unsweetened coconut cream
- One 13.5-ounce (400ml) can unsweetened coconut milk
- 10 fresh red or green Thai chiles, stemmed and finely chopped (see note)
- 3 tablespoons (80g) ginisang bagoong (see note)
- 1 scallion, ends trimmed and sliced thinly on a bias, for garnish
- Cooked white rice, for serving
In a large Dutch oven, heat oil over medium-high heat until shimmering. Using tongs, add half of the pork and cook, flipping occasionally, until golden brown on all sides, 5 to 7 minutes. Transfer to a large plate or rimmed baking sheet and set aside. Repeat with remaining pork.
Add onion, garlic, and ginger to now-empty Dutch oven. Cook, stirring occasionally, until aromatics are softened, about 3 minutes. Add coconut cream, coconut milk, and reserved pork and stir until well combined. Bring to a boil, then lower heat to maintain a simmer. Cook, stirring occasionally, until liquid is brown and reduced by half and pork is completely tender, about 2 hours. Stir in chiles and ginisang bagoong.
Transfer Bicol express to a serving bowl, garnish with scallion, and serve immediately with rice.
Large Dutch oven
You can use 5 jalapeño peppers in place of the Thai chiles.
Ginisang bagoong is fermented shrimp paste that has been sautéed with onion, garlic, vinegar, and sugar. It can be found in Filipino or Asian specialty markets and online.
Make-Ahead and Storage
Bicol express can be refrigerated in an airtight container for up to 5 days. To reheat, warm in the microwave in 30-second intervals.