Food of the Philippines: The Bicol Express controversy

Politics and religion aside, there are few subjects that can spark controversy like food — particularly when two people, or regions, claim to be the inventor or guardian of a popular dish. (If you’ve ever heard a New Yorker and Chicagoan discussing pizza, you’ll know what I mean).

Bicol Express is a classic example of this. The widely held view is that it was invented by Ms Cely Kalaw at her restaurant in Malate, Manila, in the late 60s to early 70s.


Once she had perfected the dish, she was still at a loss about what to call it. At that point she heard the daily Bicol train rumble past her window and had a lightbulb moment: Bicol Express was born!

However, many Bicolanos argue that the dish, or something very similar, had been a long-standing staple of their own cuisine, and that Ms Kalaw had added nothing but a catchy name.

In the interests of keeping the peace, I’m prepared to accept both views. Ms Kalaw grew up on the Bicol Peninsular, and the ingredients are undoubtedly typical of that region’s cuisine. Whether she simply renamed an old recipe, or added something unique to the mix is less important to me than the fact she named a meal after a train.

Bicol express
Chew, chew! The original Bicol Express, which gave its name to this much-loved dish

The Bicol Express

Even among those who can agree where it originated, fierce debate rages over how spicy it should be. Some suggest that it should be hot enough to ensure the diner needs to make an “express” visit to the toilet!

Find your own level of spice, and remember that extra heat can always be added later, but can’t really be removed. Some people add chopped ginger, so that’s something you could choose to experiment with.

For me, the real glory of this dish is the ease of cooking. If you want to show off by effortlessly whipping up a great dinner while casually chatting to your guests, then this is the recipe to go for.


Serves four.


4 cups chilli pepper, seeded and sliced
1 tbsp salt
2 cups thin coconut milk
1-1/2 to 2 cups fresh alamang (tiny shrimps)
1/2 lb pork belly, diced
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 medium-sized onion, minced
Salt to taste
1 cup thick coconut cream


Soak chilis in salted water for at least 30 minutes. Rinse thoroughly, then drain.

In a skillet, mix thin coconut milk, alamang, pork, garlic, onion and salt.

Bring to a boil, lower heat and simmer for 10 minutes. Add chilis and cook until half the liquid has evaporated.

Pour in thick coconut cream and continue cooking until oil comes out from the cream.