Apr 29, 2020
“I’M A BICOLANA!” my mother would always proudly exclaim when referencing her ardor and overt flirtatiousness, garnering raised eyebrows from everyone around her. While there is no scientific evidence that hailing from this region in Southern Luzon in the Philippines contributes to your levels of passion, there’s definitely something fiery going on there.
I was first introduced to the region in 2010, when I traveled to the province of Albay. While there I was asked to sample the cuisine and, perhaps, create my own spin on local delicacies for a luxury resort. I was truly amazed by the beauty of Bicolandia. Black volcanic soil rich in nutrients begets the brightest green grass and luxuriant tropical foliage blankets the hills and cliffs by the pristine seaside. While traversing the countryside to see the lava beds, I realized that I was in a microcosmos of Philippine geography: volcanic formations, rice plains, tropical forests and coconut plantations, white sand beaches and coral reefs, fishermen reeling in their fresh catch.
The majestic Mayon volcano dominates the landscape. It is a paradox of nature: peaceful and pleasing to the eye with its near perfection and, yet, a steady stream of smoke from above its peak is a constant reminder of its fearsome wrath and power. Like a mysterious, beautiful woman, she coyly hides herself under the clouds, only to reveal sublimity in moments of clarity. You simply cannot take your eyes off her. No matter where you go, the thought of her lingers and haunts you. Do not be fooled—this is the most active volcano in the Philippines, with 47 eruptions in a span of 500 years, the latest in January 2018. It was then that Mayon’s temper flared, spewing lava fountains and firebomb and causing officials to declare an Alert Level 4 and evacuate the surroundings.
Most of the time, however, the explosions are more on the palate. Known for its generous use of fresh chilies, Bicolano cuisine layers heat with pungent ginger and shrimp paste and then tempers it with creamy coconut. The flavors are unique and hearty while remaining vibrant and fresh—very different from the more famous tangy adobo (pork and chicken braised in soy sauce and vinegar).
One of the iconic dishes of this region is called Bicol Express. Named after a passenger train service from Manila to Bicol, the dish consists of pork stewed with long green finger chilies, shrimp paste and coconut milk. My version is a clear deviation from the traditional recipe. Inspired by the curry techniques of Thailand, instead of stewing the ingredients I created a type of paste that I can use with pork, chicken or even vegetables. While absolutely delicious, one of my pet peeves in Philippine cuisine is that often, dishes are full of flavor but lack a variation in texture; this way allows me to crisp up some chicken fillets to add a bit of crunch. You can make a batch of the paste and store it in the refrigerator for about a week. You can also change things up and purchase a roast pork belly to serve with the sauce. This dish is guaranteed to get your heart racing.
250g chicken thigh fillet
4 tablespoon canola oil
½ to ¾ cup Bicol Express sauce (recipe below)
1 teaspoon chopped lemongrass
1 small handful fresh cilantro leaves
1 piece sili labuyo
Bicol Express Paste
6 cloves garlic
120g ginger, peeled and roughly chopped
2-3 stalks fresh lemongrass
2 medium-sized onions, roughly chopped
10 pieces sili labuyo or a mix of finger chilies and red chilis (adjust to your desired heat level)
½ cup canola oil
3 tablespoons bagoong guisado/shrimp paste
Bicol Express Sauce
2-3 generous tablespoons Bicol Express paste
1 teaspoon canola oil
½ cup coconut milk
* This recipe serves 2 but can be easily multiplied as the paste makes enough for about 8-10 servings.
Start by making the paste. Pulse the ingredients in a food processor, then puree to a paste. Add more canola oil if necessary. Pan-fry the chicken in a hot pan, start with skin side down until skin is crisp, then flip and completely cook through. Set aside. To make the sauce, fry out the paste in a pan for a few seconds with some oil. Deglaze and thicken with the coconut milk and pour on the chicken right before serving. Top with fresh cilantro, fresh chopped lemongrass and a chili.