Hang on to your taste buds, cool your sweat glands and read this post thoroughly before you fire off a comment. I expect this discussion could be heatedâ€¦ But why not fan some flames on a boring Monday morning to keep some of you hot and bothered the whole week longâ€¦
Bicol Express is the catchy name for a concoction that is made up of siling mahaba (long chillies), coconut milk, bagoong or daing, onion, pork and garlic. It is delicious. The name, and the dish, is actually attributed to Cely Kalaw, who is credited with â€œinventingâ€ the dish as a companion to laing rather than being originally designed to be eaten on its own. I have written up the story before and that was based on a blurb and recipe by Cely Kalaw herself in The Philippine Cookbook edited by Virginia Roces de Guzman and Nina Daza Puyat. There is also further documentary evidence that has been published in the form of an interview by writer Lai Suarez Reyes with Cely Kalaw published in The Bulletin Today about three years ago. It seems pretty clear to me that the name â€œBicol Expressâ€, the situation that precipitated it and under which the actual recipe was created, can and should be attributed to Cely Kalaw, sometime in the 1960â€™s at the Grove Restaurant in Malate, Manila. Ms. Kalaw, though born in Los Banos, Laguna, moved to Naga in Albay when she was three years old. It was there that she got her exposure to the fiery cooking of the Bicol Peninsula. No one has ever denied that Ms. Kalaw was not influenced by other similar dishes and manner of cooking from the Bicol areaâ€¦ But it is certainly obvious that the name â€œBicol Express,â€ which she apparently coined, is an extremely popular dish in hundreds of restaurants across the country featuring Filipino food on their menus.
So whatâ€™s the big deal? Whereâ€™s the brewing brouhaha? Well, the discussion seems to heat up when natives of the Bicol peninsula get a whiff that Bicol Express wasnâ€™t actually from Bicol but created in Malate and named after the train that used to go from the Paco Station overnight to Bicol. Many of the locals I met in Legazpi and bloggersâ€™ indignant comments point to the fact that this dish has always been made in Bicol â€œfor generationsâ€ and take umbrage at the suggestion that a non-Bicolano, Manila resident should receive the credit for it. Just take a look at comments on posts regarding Bicol Express on Connieâ€™s PinoyCook and Loriâ€™s DessertComesFirst to get an idea of the indignation that some folks express. The problem seems to stem from the fact that there is a dish in the Bicol area sometimes referred to as Gulay na Lada, Ginataang Sili or Gulay na Sili that also uses coconut milk, balao or a form of shrimp paste, ginger, onions, garlic, pork, tanglad, garlic, etc. It is my guess, and only a guess, that Ms. Kalaw must have indeed been aware of such a dish and so when she decided to modify her laing by making it less spicy and instead created the fiery â€œBicol Expressâ€ to mix in with the laing, she probably got her inspiration from Gulay na Lada or versions of it. After all, most new recipes are often influenced by other dishes and it is the fresh twist and that â€œspecial something,â€ sometimes just a catchy name, that catapults it to popularity. After all, you donâ€™t hear any complaints from Ray Kroc or the legal department of McDonaldâ€™s that Jollibee Yumburgers are really versions of cheeseburgers with sugar, soy sauce and spices, do you? Or are the Italians up in arms because of McSpaghetti, for that matter?
But letâ€™s keep on this a bit longer, shall we? On my recent trip to Legaspi, I was determined to find out more about this Gulay na Lada or Bicol Express. Lada, by the way, is the Malay/Indonesian word for chilli and thus Lada Panjang is â€œLong Chilliâ€ is the closest description of our siling mahaba which is most often specified as the chilli for Bicol Express or Gulay na Lada. In Honesto C. Generalâ€™s book, The Coconut Cookery of Bicol, he refers to this dish as Gulay na Sili, Guinataang Sili and Bicol Express. He apparently didnâ€™t know the story behind the name â€œBicol Expressâ€ and while he correctly attributed it to the train, he also flippantly writes that â€œthe dish is probably so named because, in its original form, it is so peppery hot that it can send you on an express trip to the showers.â€ Hello?! At any rate, Mr. General states that the original dish called for using siling labuyo instead of siling mahaba but that was simply too hot to handle, even for Bicolanos. In the four meals at four different restaurants in Legazpi, I found zero reference to Gulay na Lada, but they did have four different versions of â€œBicol Express.â€ Not a single Bicolano I spoke to believed that this dish could be made and served using only siling labuyo.
Seems obvious to me that at least the NAME â€œBicol Expressâ€ has become the standard, at least in restaurants, whether it is close to Ms. Kalawâ€™s version or not. In fact, I would suggest that it is the Bicolanos that have lifted the popular name when they could have continued to simply and proudly call their version â€œGulay na Lada.â€ Now, as for the likelihood that Ms. Kalaw simply â€œliftedâ€ the recipe from the Bicolanos, I decided to try and do a taste test of sortsâ€¦an admittedly highly subjective procedureâ€¦ But while in Legazpi, I ordered the dish on the menu named â€œBicol Expressâ€ at four different restaurants with incredibly varied results. First up, in the second photo above, was the version from Small Talk CafÃ©. It was a plate of bagoong, some fatty pork, tomatoes and just a few slices of siling mahaba. It was the worst â€œBicol Expressâ€ I have ever seen or tasted in my entire life, period. I am hoping they had a bad day and thought I wouldnâ€™t notice. Even the locals who were with me at the table quickly dismissed it as not being a â€œreal or original Bicol Express.â€ Next came the version that I ordered at Gasthofâ€™s (third photo here). This one had more pork than sili and it also had slices of labuyo, more coconut milk and it was garnished with fried garlic. This wasnâ€™t bad but it wasnâ€™t great either. Visually, it approximated the Kalaw version but taste wise it fell a bit flat and it was a bit watery.
The third order of Bicol Express came from Wawayâ€™s, the upscale turo-turo restaurant that nearly everyone suggested I try for authentic local food. It contained a lot of red and green chillies, stripped of their pulp and seeds and shredded or cut in diagonal strips. There was more chilli than pork and the pork used was incredibly fatty. The coconut milk was also boiled down and reduced to almost just the shiny oil rather than the creamy â€œmilk.â€ This version was pretty good and went well with the other Bicolano dishes we ordered. However, the local sili used in this version had a noticeably different texture from the more meaty siling mahaba often used in Manila. This ingredient difference was a major textural and mouth feel influence. I liked the dish at Wawayâ€™s but it didnâ€™t WOW!, if you know what I mean. Finally, I ordered the best version at the unlikely venue named the Pepperland Hotel Coffee Shop. Didnâ€™t manage to get a photo but it looked almost identical to the Wawayâ€™s version but had meatier pork and more chilli seeds and pith and thus a spicier result. Both versions had balao as well.
Frankly, all of the versions I tried didnâ€™t really impress in the way that Ms. Kalawâ€™s version does. And I can see why hers and its catchy name has caught on. And if you eat it as she originally intended, as an addition to laing, it is even better. I now personally believe that she probably based her version on an older preparation called Gulay na Lada, but she made significant improvements and coined a catchy name to boot. Her version is creamier, smoother and saucier. Hers has a potential to be softer based on the use of meatier siling mahaba rather than mostly thinner skins as was characteristic of the versions I tried in Legazpi. And she and her brother were brilliant to have named it “Bicol Express.” Perhaps Bicolanos are right to get huffy when one says Ms. Kalaw â€œinventedâ€ it. Perhaps it is more accurate that one says she significantly improved on an already established dish or method of preparation. But then again, where do we draw the line on any Bicolano or Filipino claim to the original dish? Considering that chillies were only introduced to this part of the world sometime in mid-1500â€™s or so, (yes, there was far less spicy food in Indonesia, Thailand and Malaysia 500 years ago…) and had already been cultivated in Mexico for up to 5,000 YEARS before that, it seems a bit hasty to be totally absolute in our opinions about who deserves credit for inventing or improving a particular dishâ€¦