Bicol Express Origins – Manila or Bicol?

There is no doubt that Bicol Express is one of the Philippines’ most popular dishes. This is thanks in no small measure to the heat this flavorful dish packs. As the story goes, it’s named after the train that plies the Manila-Naga route. For obvious reasons, it is a common assumption that the dish naturally hails from the Bicol region.

Interestingly, the story of its origin isn’t as uncomplicated as it seems. Apparently, a great dispute has been raging over its invention. While many Bicolanos continue to claim it as a true regional heritage dish, an alternative story has come to light.

According to a number of sources, most notably the celebrated Filipino food blogger, Market Man, who references The Philippine Cookbook by De Guzman and Puyat, the dish may actually have been created in the restaurant of Cely Kalaw in Manila some decades ago. It was said to have been intended to accompany and enhance a toned down version of laing. Hence, diners could opt to adjust the heat level of laing. This, they say, was the solution conceived by Kalaw to cater to the taste buds of those who could not endure the very hot original laing recipe.

Bicol dishes call for chili overload.

Part of the contention stems from the suggestion that the recipe was purportedly concocted outside of Bicol. Incidentally, Kalaw was born in Laguna and not in a Bicol province. Nonetheless, having lived in the region, it is not difficult to assume that Kalaw drew inspiration from its rich culinary tradition. It is noteworthy that there is a similar local dish to Bicol Express called gulay na lada which Micky Fenix in an Inquirer article said Kalaw based her recipe on.

For whatever it’s worth, there is no question as to the region’s stamp of influence on the dish. Regardless of whether it was created elsewhere or not, its spirit is characteristic of the place for which it was named.

Curiously, even if we do manage to settle on a universally accepted origin story one day, I suppose there will be no end to the debate over it. There are now numerous versions of the dish that it has become impossible for any cook to attempt his version without receiving some fair amount of criticism.

Chili, salted shrimp fry and everything nice.

The cook in the video above is Cagayanon but the recipe is from his Bicolano co-worker who says the real predominant ingredient of Bicol Express is really long, green chili peppers. Other versions now substitute this with Baguio beans and omit the salted shrimp fry. Obviously, not everyone can survive the experience of munching on chilis.

For the Cagayan de Oro cook’s complete recipe, visit our sister site, PersonalCookFiles.com.

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25 Responses to Bicol Express Origins – Manila or Bicol?

  1. I love eating Bicol Express for its hot spicy ordeal or challenge so to speak for every eater. Whatever its origin, Bicol express is know for its very hot spicy taste. No more, no less!

  2. We may never trace the real origin of the dish but let’s be glad somebody came up with a recipe that we all love! I have learned to love this dish when I got married, my husband love all things chilli! 😀

  3. My late grandmother cooked the best version of Bicol Express for us. It was fortunate that my mom has learned her recipe and improvised it to vegetarian (using mock meat).

    • only true bicolanos can cook the real bicol express because of the most important ingredient – balao or the small shrimps, which abound in san miguel bay. the more commercialized version in manila has more meat than the balao and the sili. this is not bicol express to bicolanos!

      • That’s true Boy D. That’s why if you watch the video, there’s really more sili in there than meat. We also used small shrimps. Although it’s not balao, that’s the closest we could get our hands on. Recently our good friend from Bicol brought us a block of balao. We’re excited to try it out.

  4. Bicol Express is one if my fave dishes! And I like it extra spicy! My lola’s from Bicol and their clan makes the best bicol express (well, thats my opinion haha).
    Actually salivating for one now!

  5. I remember our house cook preparing this meal in the early sixties. I was living with my grandparents in Legazpi City, Albay. Our states that ke learned to cook this dish from his grandfather. I wonder if his grandfather ever went to Malate.

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