Who Invented the Incendiary BICOL EXPRESS?


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 heated… But why not fan some flames on a boring Monday morning to keep some of you hot and bothered the whole week long…

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 “inventing” 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 “Bicol Express”, the situation that precipitated it and under which the actual recipe was created, can and should be attributed to Cely Kalaw, sometime in the 1960’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 area… But it is certainly obvious that the name “Bicol Express,” which she apparently coined, is an extremely popular dish in hundreds of restaurants across the country featuring Filipino food on their menus.

So what’s the big deal? Where’s the brewing brouhaha? Well, the discussion seems to heat up when natives of the Bicol peninsula get a whiff that Bicol Express wasn’t actually from Bicol bicex2but 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 bloggers’ indignant comments point to the fact that this dish has always been made in Bicol “for generations” 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 Connie’s PinoyCook and Lori’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 “Bicol Express” 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 “special something,” sometimes just a catchy name, that catapults it to popularity. After all, you don’t hear any complaints from Ray Kroc or the legal department of McDonald’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 let’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 “Long Chilli” 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. General’s book, The Coconut Cookery of Bicol, he refers to this dish as Gulay na Sili, Guinataang Sili and Bicol Express. He apparently didn’t know the story behind the name “Bicol Express” and while he correctly attributed it to the train, he also flippantly writes that “the 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.” 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 “Bicol Express.” 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 “Bicol Express” has become the standard, at least in restaurants, whether it is close to Ms. Kalaw’s version or not. In fact, I would suggest that it is the bicex3Bicolanos that have lifted the popular name when they could have continued to simply and proudly call their version “Gulay na Lada.” Now, as for the likelihood that Ms. Kalaw simply “lifted” the recipe from the Bicolanos, I decided to try and do a taste test of sorts…an admittedly highly subjective procedure… But while in Legazpi, I ordered the dish on the menu named “Bicol Express” at four different restaurants with incredibly varied results. First up, in the second photo above, was the version from Small Talk Café. It was a plate of bagoong, some fatty pork, tomatoes and just a few slices of siling mahaba. It was the worst “Bicol Express” I have ever seen or tasted in my entire life, period. I am hoping they had a bad day and thought I wouldn’t notice. Even the locals who were with me at the table quickly dismissed it as not being a “real or original Bicol Express.” Next came the version that I ordered at Gasthof’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 wasn’t bad but it wasn’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 Waway’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 bicex4almost just the shiny oil rather than the creamy “milk.” 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 Waway’s but it didn’t WOW!, if you know what I mean. Finally, I ordered the best version at the unlikely venue named the Pepperland Hotel Coffee Shop. Didn’t manage to get a photo but it looked almost identical to the Waway’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 didn’t really impress in the way that Ms. Kalaw’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 “invented” 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-1500’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 dish…


21 Responses

  1. MM, your a “foodologist” haha, i think that doesn’t sound right, but anyway, it really is good to have this infos. . . you really are a vast reader. . .

  2. Your explanation sounds totally plausible to me. However i have had all types of dishes from Bicol with the (ubiquitous in bicol) gata/chilli mixture that are all fairly close in taste to cely kalaw’s bicol express, even down to the creaminess you describe, so it really seems to be much ado about… i think it is the individual cook’s preference that makes the dish what it is, and cely kalaw’s is one way of doing it.

    And you are of course spot-on about the arrival date of chillies into Asia– around the 16th century, during the age of exploration (Columbus, Magellan and all the rest of them)

    But what has that to do with crediting the origins of a particular dish? That was 500 years ago. Seems justified to assume that an ingredient is already indigenous to a country after say, 100 years maybe. After all, it was not just chillies that arrived from the New World in the 1600s.

    Tomatoes, potatoes, chocolate, just to name a few foods, were non-existent in europe before the 1500s-1600s (being indigenous to Latin America, which was yet ‘undiscovered’).

    Try to imagine Italian food without tomatoes. Or English/Irish/German food without potatoes (fish and…bread? e wala pang chips noon). And yet before the 18th century these ingredients were not available in Europe or Asia. Indeed upon their initial arrival and for a couple of centuries hence, tomatoes and potatoes were actually believed to be toxic to humans and used mainly as ornamental plants.

    And before the arrival of chillies in India, people used black pepper as their main spice. imagine that, indian food (or thai, or indonesian, or malaysian food) without chillies. Bizarre.

    Come to think of it, even our beloved Philippine mango was originally an Indian import.

  3. What is a recipe after all but just a theme which a capable cook is allowed to play each time with variation. But could it be that the Bicolanos are just plain wary of misattribution just like the one that was done on “Sarung Banggi” which for two generations was assumed to be a folksong until somebody dug deeper and found that Potenciano Gregorio (1880-1939) composed the endearing tune in 1910?

  4. Tita Cely is a great friend of mine and I see her weekly for our Wednesday dinners. I’ll ask her personally. Strangely though, I don’t remember EVER having eaten Bicol Express in my life. The woman can really cook and her passion for food is infectious. She loves feeding me! Ain’t that a blessing? One Wednesday, she made a refreshing and unforgettable summer salad of chopped cilantro, apples, cucumbers, carrots, pomelo and other bits of whatever with a lime juice dressing. I had 2 heaping bowls…. I love anything with gata. I’ll buy nga Bicol Express frome her this Saturday when I hit the Organic Market. Thanks for the exhaustive discourse on Bicol Express, MM! You did your job well – Provoke thought and tease the palate!

  5. Gigi, yahoo, the link I was looking for. Think she would allow me to interview her about the Bicol Express thing? I could do it at her Sinigang Place at Market!Market! and perhaps do a feature on that in the future…

  6. I’ll email you separately and give you her cell #. Oh, she’ll looooove to talk. You better load up on caffeine to match her moxie, MM. :) Or better yet, come na rin to our Wednesday dinners at San Lo! :)

  7. hay i’m missing the bicol express the manang would sell at a carinderia in our school. there was a week when my friend and i would have B.E. for lunch everyday. it was creamy, spicy… Hot! sarap!! mind you, she won’t make a big big batch of it and she would run out of it all the time. pero ayaw nya damihan pa rin–to make us come back everyday daw! :)

  8. Speaking about food coming from the New World. Among those that were brought over here is camote or sweet potato. If you have read the book “1421”, author Gavin Menzies claimed that it was admiral Zheng He and his fleet that brought camote, corn and other food item to the Philippines over from Mexico. Though this has yet to be substatiated by other researchers and most research materials for now dispute this claim. In fact most material suggest that it was from the Philippines that camote found it way to China rather than direct from Mexico. So for now it still stand that it was the Spaniard who brought over to the Philippines camote, corn and peanuts. Perhaps from the Philippine that these found their way to China and maybe who knows it was from the Philippine that chili found it way to China.

  9. Yes, so many new crops migrating and being transported across oceans starting 500 years ago… Our food must have been “purer” in a sense before that based on what was really locally available…but then again, we were already trading spices, probably soy sauce, etc. with merchants coming to Cebu, Mindoro, Mindanao, etc.

  10. Hi Marketman!

    I fixed Bicol Express using your recipe. It is great! I made it mild (my 11 year old son wanted to try it too). We ate two bowls of it (and lotsa rice). Maraming Salamat or as they say here in Korea, kasahamnida!


  11. Marketman,

    The Bicol Express was too good, I overate and had indigestion! LOL Maybe next time I’ll go easy in the glutonny. Keep up the good work. I love reading your posts every morning on My Yahoo RSS.


  12. elow poh
    tanung koh lng poh kung anung procedure sa paglu2to ng gulay na lada kc poh my cookfest kami sa skul…mga bicol dishes poh ang lu2tuin..my mai sa suggest poh bah kau????
    tnx… poh….

  13. The original name of the famous Bicol Express is LINATIK.
    it nmeans spicy or ma-anghang. Bicol’ “MIRAYA” among the bicolanos is noted for their spicy foods and ginataang gulay usuallty hot to taste. The MIRAYAN country is compose of Donsol,Daraga,Pio Duran, Jovellar, Guinobatan. Their cooking is quite different from the rest of Bicol, it is somewhat exotic.

    Remember Bicol Express or “LINATIK” is not only mixed with pork, balaw, but also exotic fishes such as Baluko or other meaty shell fishes,Shark PAGI of course my favorite We called this “KINUNUT’. If you happen to be in this Mirayan country try this exotic Bicol Express known as “KINUNUT’.

    So, Bicol Express was the name used for fun when asked about this exotic food from a local train bound for Bicol in early 60’s with markings of Bicol Express.

    I am hoping this will open up the minds of filipinos that the original still being called LINATIK is our “LINTIK SA ANGHANG ANG SARAP” invention. MABUHAY ANG MGA BICOLANO!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  14. “bikol express” ay tawag sa mga maaahang na putahe na ibinibenta sa mga estasyton PNR sa kahabaan ng bicolandia hanggang legazpi, gayon din sa terminal ng bus sa pasay hangang gubat sorsugon nung nakalipas na mga panahon ito yung mga pagkaing nakagarapon o nakabalot ng dahon ng saging laing, gulay na lada, balaw, kinunot na pagi o pating etc. at dahil sa kasikatan nito sa mga pook na yaon natagurian itong “bikol express alin sunod sa pangalan ng bus ng jb lines at tren ng PNR “Philippine National Railway”

  15. I remember the grove….they had 40 different dishes in their buffet and it was quite dark…I didn’t notice the chiles and I was burning like hell….I really liked it and you were supposed to mix it with your laing or guinataang kuhol…I guess many liked it on it’s own….kahit na sino pa man ang nagimbento ng bicol express….. kay tital cely ang pinakamasarap…….para sa akin

  16. Well my mom who is from Bicol seems to have the impression (she is not a cook) that Bicol Express is just a “popular” term for pork with chilies and coconut sauce served here in Manila. In Bicol, she says, they would cook just the chilies (the big ones, not the small red ones) and the dish was vegetarian (no pork!). She is referring to Sorsogon here.

    She makes a mean Bicol Express which she cooks with whatever is available, for example, you can easily make it with chicken, not pork and add vegetables to make it more healthy. Of course, this makes it not “real” Bicol Express but it is still very tasty. Ours is also cooked without bagoong as I am allergic to it.

    It’s hard being allergic to bagoong, most people will chide me and stare in disbelief when I eat kare-kare without the bagoong. Nobody ever believes kare-kare is delicious even without bagoong! *sigh* We also cook pinakbet without bagoong which makes most people laugh… Filipinos love their bagoong.

  17. wow..this is my favorite dish of all time! I always order this dish in every resto I’m in. I love it so much!

  18. i first heard about bicol express at the grove restaurant. it’s really good but to me, it is really just a version of the gulay na lada. they probably invented the name and should be credited for it. if you go around bicol, you will be surprised to find out that we have maybe a thousand versions. there is one that uses dilis,pagi, pasa-pasa – instead of meat, sometimes they add “perioles” (a type of beans), and lately, even pineapple. which one is the best? it really depends on one’s taste.



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