Bicol Express is a spicy Filipino stew made with two signature ingredients of Bicol cuisine: fiery-hot chilies and creamy coconut milk. Cely Kalaw, the restauranteur widely credited for inventing and popularizing the dish, named it after the old railway connecting Manila and Albay.
The origin of the dish itself is not as clear-cut. Some say that Bicol Express started as a less-spicy offshoot of Kalaw's signature spicy laing. Others claim that Kalaw adapted Bicol's gulay na lada or ginataang sili by adding pork. It could also be sinilihan, an existing Bicolano dish, repackaged with a catchier name.
Whatever the real story is, we can all agree that Bicol Express should, at the bare minimum, be extremely spicy.
Ingredients for Bicol Express
Every Bicol Express needs four things:
- coconut cream
- lots of chilies
- shrimp paste
Depending on the household, the specifics of these ingredients can change: coconut cream versus milk, green versus red chilies, bagoong guisado or alamang, ground pork versus pork belly, and so on.
This recipe gives you a solid Bicol Express to enjoy as is or to fine-tune to your liking. Some versions are garnished with cooked ground pork or chicken.
Sinilihan, AKA traditional Bicol Express, prefers the spicy oil separated from the cream. We have a whole recipe for that here.
This recipe both coconut cream (for the sauce) and coconut milk (for cooking the pork). Go grab your brand of choice, either canned or boxed, from the grocery.
If you can get fresh coconut cream, even better! Any coconut-forward dish like this one can benefit from naturally sweet and fresh-tasting coconut.
Lots of Chilies
Bicol Express wants—no, needs—to set your butt on fire. This recipe fulfills the requirement by using both siling labuyo (red chilies) and siling haba (green chilies).
Pork belly is the standard cut used for Bicol Express, and for good reason: It has a good balance of fat and meat, of flavor and tenderness. No need to stray from tradition here.
Most Bicol Express recipes call for bagoong guisado, but depending on the brand, it can taste too aggressive. And as much as we like the convenience of jarred alamang, it made our Bicol Express too salty, and left a slightly unpleasant smell and aftertaste.
We recommend using fresh alamang or balaw from the wet market. Some supermarkets also sell the pink paste in plastic containers. Fresh alamang starts out as salty as jarred bagoong, but with proper prep, you can temper it into a mildly shrimpy, just-right fishy flavor.
- ¼ cup fresh shrimp paste, balaw, or alamang
- 700g pork belly, sliced into ¼-inch pieces
- 2 tbsp red onion, small-diced
- 1 ½ tbsp garlic, minced
- 2–3 tbsp red chili, sliced
- 2 cups fresh coconut milk, prepared
- 1–1 ½ cups fresh coconut cream, prepared
- 3 siling haba, sliced diagonally
Prepare shrimp paste: Squeeze the shrimp paste with clean hands to remove its brine. Set aside in a small bowl.
Cook pork: Add the sliced pork belly to a cold pan. Place the pan over low-medium heat, slowly rendering out the fat from the pork. Cook until browned.
Cook aromatics: Add onions and garlic to the rendered fat. Cook, stirring constantly, until aromatic. Add the shrimp paste and chilies, then cook for 1–2 minutes.
Cook coconut: Stir in coconut milk and simmer over low heat until pork is tender. Add coconut cream, stirring constantly to prevent it from separating. Keep cooking and stirring until the sauce is slightly reduced and thick.
Serve: Transfer Bicol Express to a platter and garnish with sliced siling haba. Enjoy hot with steamed rice.