There appears to be a rather interesting story behind this omnipresent dish in Filipino restaurants today. What many people assume to be a dish native to Bicol due to its name and the abundance of sili na mahaba (long green chillies) is in fact a Manila invention. According to my source, The Philippine Cookbook by Virginia Roces de Guzman and Nina Daza Puyat, Bicol Express was invented by Cely Kalaw, the owner of the famous Grove Restaurant on M.H. del Pilar of the 1960’s. Apparently, the restaurant’s patrons at the time complained that the Laing (Gabi or Taro leaves in coconut milk with chillies) was too spicy for their palates so the restaurant decided to tone down the chillies, but invented Bicol Express for people who wanted to add it to the Laing in order to notch up the heat quotient. In other words, Bicol Express was meant to augment the Laing. And the name, well, according to the book, after the restaurant invented the dish, they heard a train from the nearby Paco station and they said it was the “Bicol Express”.
Over the years, this recipe has morphed into all sorts of representations of the original but I did want to figure out how it all started out. The combination of sili na mahaba (long green chillies) with some sliced pork and coconut milk has always intrigued me and I can eat a whole bowl of rice with a good dish of Bicol Express (without the Laing, even). This recipe is essentially that of Cely Kalaw, but I have altered the instructions a little to yield a more fiery version (Ms. Kalaw removes the chilli pith and seeds, I don’t). For ten generous portions, the ingredients are:
400 grams of sili na mahaba (long green chillies, almost chartreuse in color, they are mild in spice)
Two large pork chops, de-boned and sliced into thin strips
4 cloves of garlic, smashed and chopped up fine with some salt sprinkled on them
1 large onion, chopped fine
3 cups of EVCO or thick coconut milk
2 teaspoons of good bagoong (preferably without the nuclear red food coloring)
Remove the stems from the chillies. Take half of the chillies, slice lengthwise and remove seeds and piths, then cut into 1/2 inch pieces. For the other half of the chillies, cut into 1/2 inch pieces with pith and seeds intact. This formula yields a Bicol Express with some punch, you can adjust heat by increasing the proportion of chillies with seeds and pith in your dish.
In a medium sized stainless or enameled pot, combine the EVCO, pork, onion and garlic and bring to a boil. Simmer until the pork is tender, about 10 minutes. Add the sliced chillies and continue cooking until the chillies are just soft and the sauce is thickened. Add the bagoong and stir and cook a minute longer. I like the Bicol Express to be still saucy as I mix it in with my steaming rice for a delicious and spicy meal. Soon I will post a laing recipe as well. Enjoy! And thank you to the original Grove restaurant for inventing such a classic!