Bicol Express

There appears to be a rather interesting story behind this omnipresent dish in Filipino restaurants today. ex1What 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. ex2The 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. ex3Take 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. ex4Add 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!


54 Responses

  1. i’ve told a friend about your site, and she just cooked this and we had this for lunch today and it’s delish! … patok na patok :)

  2. edee glad you liked it. I always fear when I post a recipe that I might inadvertedly leave something out or not explain it well and give a reader a stomach ache! Thanks for taking the risk!

  3. I just made this and had to substitute serrano chiles instead. I used fewer, and it turned out very good. I think Bicol Express is my most favorite pinoy dish.

    I noticed that there is an entry for Bicol Express in the IMDB. Maybe it was a “spicy” movie?

  4. According to some bicolanos who posted comments on my blog, the dish has been cooked for centuries in the bicol region. Perhaps, Cely Kalaw was the one who coined the term “bicol express” but did not invent the recipe?

  5. Connie, I suppose that is totally possible. But Ms. Kalaw (who is not Bicolano) did repeat that story often (it was even published in the book quoted above)and my folks who used to frequent the Grove seem to think she was brilliant for separating the “heat” from the laing. Laing in most restaurants today has no heat whatsover and the versions in Bicol are wicked spicy. My Dad was from Bicol but he has since passed away…so I can’t ask him if he had this dish as a kid… I am headed that way soon so maybe I can poke around… whomever did invent it, it tastes brilliant! I just pulled out my copy of Honesto General’s book on Bicolano cooking and he does also call this dish “Bicol Express” and attributes it to the train as well (which has only been running for say 100 years I would think?), but does not site The Grove as the source. I am very willing to believe that Bicol had a dish similar to this but it is interesting how the name which was only coined in the late 1950’s at the Grove has stuck to all the modern versions. Also, General states without reference or background, that the original dish was supposedly made with siling labuyo and even that was too hot to handle and so it presumably evolved to the siling mahaba version. Frankly, I would be SURPRISED if many people really made this dish with labuyo alone as it would be simply inedible. Indonesian cuisine can be burning hot and they have many similar dishes to Bicolano food and I don’t recall their having a stewed labuyo version as a vegetable dish…

  6. bata pa kami nakamulatan na namin ang laing at bicol express i agree with the the first one to post a comment that maybe miss kalaw is just one of the few na hindi bicolana na nakapag luto ng dish the way bicol people do it….kasi mga lolo at lolo ko bata pa sila(mga 1912 born ha) kain na sila ng ganun eh…..

  7. marita, I actually have a post later in the blog that addresses the possible sources of the dish in more detail…while it is likely patterned after an old bicolano dish, it was apparently named by Ms. Kalaw and that popular name “Bicol Express” has stuck and thus she gets a lot of the credit whether deserved or not. Since the trains have only been running to Bicol for 50-60 years and the “Express” less than that, the local gulay na lada as it was known just got a bit of an update. And before that, we got the gulay na lada probably from Malaysia and Indonesia…

  8. pls pose the recipe on how to cook laing pls i really need to know how to do it. you are the one who can help me it’s becoming my favorite dish.ok?

  9. i am trying to cook a pinoy meal for my filipina gf… i am not pinoy myself… so what is teh best and easy to cook meal.. any suggestion

  10. jd, I swould suggest something classic, easy to do anywhere in the world (or at least major cities) so I would suggest a beefsteak tagalog and perhaps adobong kangkong. Links to recipes are here and here. Good luck.

  11. star, you have to thicken the coconut milk. If you use fresh, use onlythe first squeezing of milk and cook it down until thicker. If you use canned, it is already quite thick to begin with…

  12. ever since n ntikman ko and lutong bicolano, ive loved it. kc super anghang at super sarap. lalo na kpag malamig. may lasa syang babalik balikan mo. grabe super sarap.

  13. hi, for this recipe can i use liempo instead of porkchop? also is it okay if i add more pork? thanks

  14. suzette, yes, I think liempo cut up into pieces would work. and more pork is okay… just remove some of the seeds of the sili if you don’t want the dish too hot…

  15. last question, i want to use just around 300g of the sili. is that okay? won’t it ruin the taste of the recipe?

  16. yeah,me too,I really love bicol express(i’m bicolana)..pero an pangit naman ata sabihin na 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..kc an mga lolo ko mga bata pa cla niluluto na un ng mga nanay nila..unfair na ganun an sabihin dba??siguro nga bka nka tuklas lang din si mrs.kalaw na ganun din an timpla.. ang bicol express dun sa amin mas madami an gulay kesa karne(di ko na alam an orig na recipe kc may iba-ibang version na..)

  17. yhay, there are further discussions elsewhere on the blog as to the dish and the “inventor” – I think it is safe to say that it has its roots in Bicol but was only given its updated look and feel and most importantly its catchy name by Ms. Kalaw. Bicol Express vs. Gulay na Lada it remains… :)

  18. the dish is without doubt from bicol. probably ms. kalaw can be credited for the name. since in bicol as my grandparents said, they never bothered calling it bicol express. they just called it gulay na lada or sili. why bother calling it bicol this or bicol that when you are a bicolano in bicol enjoying a bicolano dish? so most probably, the name was given by a non-bicolano or by a bicolano introducing it outside bicol. and yes, bicol express refer to the bicol-bound train and for us sorsoganons also for the now defunct JB line buses which used to be the king of Bicol roads, rival of pantranco. and if one is too lazy to cook and want some fire in their mouth just buy a pack of siling labuyo (we call it pasites in sorsogon). prepare a sawsawan of suka with bawang, wash the pasites, dip into the sawsawan and enjoy with rice. harang the bicolano way!

  19. Hello, I am a Bicolano and im proud to be one. Laing is indeed such a nice recipe. As a matter of fact Laing is my favorite dish that i always cook. We usually called it in Bicol as “Natong”. Laing is equally famous and tasty as the Bicol Express. It is another best dish Bicol is taking pride of. Its texture is smooth and it milky because of the gata (coconut milk). The kick is in the end. Once you swallow the laing that’s when the taste of spiciness takes over your mouth. Simply wonderful!

  20. trying to cook bicol express first time hehe.. the thing is am wondering kasi if i can put bagoong na naka garapon wala kasi dito sa finland yong kagaya sa atin eh.. would that be possible?

  21. I tried the bicol express it was good..really i missed home so much while am eating it. Am not from Bicol though but just eating the pinoy foods happy na ako. Thank you so much marketman.
    Anyways, my favor lang po ako… do you have the receipt of “pork hamonado”? I want to try cooking it for my birthday nextweek kasi. Sana meron kang recipe non.

  22. I remember My dad bringing me to tita cely’s grove restaurant in the early seventies. The place was quite dark and the buffet boasted of 40 different dishes. There was Kuhol (native pa noon) and other stuff. I took some Bicol express not knowing what it was, At first it fried my brains out then I kept coming back for more. I would always visit tita cely’s stall at Market Market every time I go up to Manila from davao where I am now staying. I have a small eatery here and serve a tempered version of tita cely’s famous Bicol express.

    Your site is super

    thanks a lot

  23. hi i am a pure bicolano my father is a native of iriga city and my mother is a native of naga city. i actually know how to cook that “bicol express” . Anyway, i don’t read much the recipe i just want to comment on the picture of the bicol express what is missing in that. the leaves or “LUBAS” or naga term called it as “LIBAS”. a leaves which taste is a lil sour. and it was chop in a very thin slices.

  24. hey kadakol man procedure ang pag comment igdi.

    i am a native of bicol and i cook bicol express, thae basic recipe of that is gata, balaw, sili sabi kan albayanos (lada), taba nang baboy and the leves of LUBAS. which is missing in that recipe of Kalaw.


  25. please give update about laing , as i learned about researches that laing is not good for kids, please give me info about this, if its true or not. thanks.

  26. i tried it after i found some long green chilies here in australia and i added eggplants (because my housemates wanted some). we paired it with some bulad dipped in pinakurat. it was such a hit! will definitely cook this one again.

    thanks MM! :)

  27. To add color, you can add “sigarilyas” to bicol express for the veggie part. my mom cooks it very well. the best “bEX” I’ve ever tasted. i tried cooking it once under the guidance of my mom and thank God, it was a success!!! u can also add tomatoes while sauteing it. masarap din. well, nothing beats my mom’s cooking though. sabagay, she’s the bicolana in the family. hehehe. the slicing of the sili is de numero. di basta2 yon. even the slicing of the pork. thats the way she do it even when she cooks the dinuguan – the bicol way (with coconut milk). she’s a champ in cooking bicol dishes.

  28. I finally made some bicol express over the weekend, and boy oh boy your recipe is quite easy to follow! I thought for some reason, cooking bicol express is too complicated, but your recipe proved it wrong! Although, i didn’t really made the “authentic version”, I had to use coconut milk in the can and I started with siling labuyo instead. Good thing my dad called while he’s at the grocery so he picked up some sili pang-sinigang! :) I just had the urge to cook it, and so what if I didn’t have the right kind of sili, hehehe. It was spicy, I added more chili flakes, the bagoong I used was spicy, the husband’s bald head was sweating and I had to limit my intake just incase my stomach get all crazy and stuff! :) I had it for dinner, the next day we had some left over shrimp and I added the shrimp and re-heat the whole thing in the pan! It was soo good and spiCY!! I’m making it again this weekend! thanks for the recipe!

  29. lada is the malaysian term for chil and lada panjang is long chili…….. they say that an earlier version of bicol express was gulay na lada or gulay na may lada mmmmmmmmmmmmmmmm

  30. hablon post makes a lot of sense…. its like the Philly cheese steak…. anywhere in the US (maybe in the world) they call it that.. ‘Philly cheese steak’…. but once in Philidelphia its only called ‘Cheese Steak’.

  31. This is an interesting read on Bicol Express… well, I’m home-grown Bicolano and I’ve eaten Bicol Express since i was a kid. I don’t think Cely Kalaw invented the dish… though she might have coined the name of “Bicol Express”. JB Line, a bus transportation company plying the Bicol-Manila-Bicol route used to call its fleet as “Bicol Express”. It runs as fast as you can count 1-2-3. I would like to think that the original name the Bicolanos gave “Bicol Express” was “gulay na lada” and now it is more popularly known as Bicol Express -presumably from those who is not used to its fiery hot taste, grabs a glass of water to cool of one’s mouth and tongue, after getting a first bite. :-)

    By the way, I too have my own recipe on how to cook it – thanks to my mom, and it really packs a punch! I only use authentic ingredients from Bicol when cooking this special dish so anyone who gets to eat it, I can say with pride that it is an authentic Bicol Express recipe cooked by a Bicolano! :-) Cheers!

  32. i love to cook po pero nang mamatay po ang lola ko nawalan na po ako ng gana magluto ano po ba ang pwede kong gawin para mahilig ulit po ako sa pagluluto….

  33. Hi! my cousins in the U.S. want me to send ’em bicol express (BE). My worry is that it might get spoiled already before it reaches them. What is the best packing for BE? Is there a way to increase its shelf life so that it could be stored for a longer period of time?
    Dios mabalos!



    Teddy’s in the US, Sammy, never heard of him for quite sometime. I’m in Cebu. Maybe we can chat. Please give me your email add.
    I’m launching bicol expres here in cebu on microwabable containers. Good to hear there are companies in mla that could do the canning service. Please provide me contact numbers with these companies.
    My version of bEX is generic – means, one can re-cook it by adding veggies like beans, laing, etc.

  36. hi! i’m currently based in australia,and am planning to cook this for my foreign friends. does it taste good even without bagoong? i may be able to find it in an asian store here, but i’m not sure how it will go over kasi if i add the bagoong. have you ever tried versions without?

  37. Dr. Clairebear,
    I suppose you can substitute bagoong with patis, but it will not be the same. The bagoong adds texture and flavor that cannot be replaced by the patis.

    My friend from Bicol says that they call Bicol Express, Gulay na Lada. Perhaps, the writers (Nina Puyat? and the other one) of the book did not do their research well enough. :)

  38. I am willing to believe that Ms. Cely Kalaw innovated on a dish that is widely popular in Bicol. One incarnation of this recipe has anchovies instead of pork which my lola used to prepare. Another version has dried cow’s hide which is extra chewy and very delicious. Maybe Ms. Kalaw did Christine the dish as “Bicol Express,” and it made the dish her own. But if i remember right, an even older version prepared by farmers simply has coconut milk, shrimp paste and the chillies. They were side dishes eaten with fried fish, fried pork and other similar viands.

  39. Re ur claim that Bicol Express is a Manila dish Invented by Cely Kalaw is a bit outlandish. The fisrt time I encountered this dish was way back in 1954 in a birthday party held at the ancestral home of the Moll/Garchitorena family in Tigaon, Camarines Sur.

    This version was made up mainly of finely chopped red siling labuyo cooked in thick coconut milk and seasoned with the Bicolano version of the Malaysian “blachan”. At the moment, I can’t recall the term Bicolano term for it. It’s basicall a dried shrimp paste mixed with some herbs that’s wrapped in banana leaf/newspaper and shaped like a solid cylinder. The last time I bought one was as the Naga City public market.

    Even at that time, this dish was referred to by the Bicolanos in Tigaon as Bicol Express. The dish has a very deep red hue from all the siling labuyo, and the color rivals that produced by tomato sauce.

    Needless to say that it was used very sparingly a a side dish or as dipping sauce for whatever main course is served.

    The commercial restaurant version developed by the Tagalog cooks as served in most Metro Manila restaurant is way off this original version.

    Clarence Tuvera’s memory of how this dish is preprared and how it is used is definitely right on the mark!

  40. para sa akin ang laing ang pinakapaborito ko,bukod sa masarap n nakakamura kapa sa ingredients…its very delicious..can you prepare any dishes?from bicol

  41. This is my favorite Pinoy dish! I remember ordering this every almost every time I went to a restaurant near our place. They have one helluva bEX!

  42. I tried cooking this without bagoong because my girlfriend doesn’t like it and she loves it. Turned out to be really spicy because I gave it a lot of chillies.

  43. sarap nyan kabayan! khit d ako mahilig sa maanghang,naanghangan man ako nagustuhan ko nman! sobra! lagi ko to kinakain nung nagwowork ako sa cabuyao laguna.bili lng ako ng bili ng luto na..sarap pati sili na green.hehe

  44. I love bicol express! thank you for sharing! hope you can try posting the recipe for Pininyahang Manok.



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