In the 1970s, restauranteur Cely Kalaw came up with a tamer alternative to her best-selling spicy laing. Some say that for inspiration, she looked to a spicy Bicolano stew of chilies and coconut milk: sinilihan, also known as ginataang sili or gulay na lada. Kalaw added pork to the originally meatless dish, then introduced it at her restaurant under a catchier name: Bicol Express.
When Bicol Express exploded in popularity, the new name eventually found its way back to Bicol. Soon, Bicolanos started calling their native sinilihan Bicol Express, too. But some differences exist between Kalaw's and Bicol's versions.
What's the Difference Between Sinilihan and Bicol Express?
You can think of Bicol Express as the cover of a song that blew up and became more popular than the original. Some will claim that sinilihan is the "original" song—the version Bicolanos people grew up and are more familiar with.
Which version is better? That's a matter of personal preference. Despite different arrangements, both sing the same delicious, spicy, coconut-flavored song.
Let's look at what sets Bicolano sinilihan apart from Manila-born Bicol Express:
- Sinilihan has less meat and more chilies, making it spicier.
- Sinilihan is dry and reddish-orange in color compared to Bicol Express, which has a pale and creamy sauce.
- Sinilihan is cooked until the oil splits from the coconut cream, extending its shelf life. Some cooks pack and sell it in jars as a ready-to-eat condiment or ulam.
Why Do You Need to Split the Oil From the Cream?
Coconut milk spoils very quickly because of its high moisture content. When a moist environment is present, it can breed bacteria and cause spoilage.
It's why coconut milk labels tell you to use all of it ASAP once opened. If you leave it out at room temperature, it will start going bad in about two hours.
Before groceries and canned coconut products, traditional sinilihan used freshly extracted coconut cream. Without any stabilizers, it spoiled even faster than canned cream.
Cooks found that cooking off the coconut cream's excess moisture made sinilihan last much longer. To do that, you need to simmer the stew until the cream split into oil and water. The water—the moist environment bacteria love—would then cook off and evaporate, leaving a coconut-flavored oil.
If you've made Bicol Express before, sinilihan is just as easy to make. Cook up a big batch and serve with heaps of hot steamed rice. If you start to sweat and can't feel your tongue, it means you made it right!
- 1 ½–2 cups prepared coconut cream
- 1 ½ tbsp oil
- 200g-350g pork belly, small diced
- 2 tbsp red onion, small diced
- 1 ½ tbsp minced garlic
- ⅓ cup sliced siling haba (green chili)
- 4–5 tbsp sliced siling labuyo (red chili)
- 3 tbsp–¼ cup fresh shrimp paste, balaw, or alamang
- 1 ½–2 cups coconut cream, canned or fresh
Prepare shrimp paste: Using clean hands, squeeze fresh shrimp paste over a bowl to drain it of its brine. Discard brine and set drained shrimp paste aside.
Cook pork: Add the sliced pork belly to a cold pan. Place the pan over medium-low heat, slowly rendering the fat from the pork. Cook pork in rendered fat until browned, about 8–10 minutes.
Cook aromatics: Add onions and garlic. Cook in the pork fat until soft and fragrant. Add the shrimp paste and chilies, then cook for 1–2 minutes.
Simmer and serve: Pour coconut cream into the pan. Reduce heat to low and simmer mixture until the oil separates from the cream, 25–30 minutes. Serve with hot rice.