Bicol express

Bicol express

7000 Islands
Jana Liebenstein

In general, regionality in Filipino cuisine is characterised by local twists to classic dishes found across the country. Bicol, in south-east Luzon, has its own culinary style; coconut milk is used with abandon and little restraint is shown with chillies. Bicol express is the region’s star.

Filipinos typically find Bicol express quite spicy and for this reason sweet pineapple is sometimes added to cut the heat. It is mild compared to other South East Asian dishes, so if you are accustomed to a little fire, this version should be just right. Drain the shrimp paste so it’s not too salty and use the sautéed, not the bottled version labelled ‘fresh’. For a healthier take, stir-fried pork strips can be substituted.


Quantity Ingredient
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
500g skinless pork belly, cut into 1 cm strips
6 garlic cloves, crushed
5cm piece ginger, peeled and finely grated
1 onion, finely chopped
65g sautéed shrimp paste
750ml coconut milk, plus extra to drizzle
6 long green chillies, seeded, sliced widthwise, plus extra thinly sliced, to serve
2 long red chillies, seeded and sliced widthwise
2 red bird’s-eye chillies, sliced widthwise
steamed rice, to serve


  1. Heat the vegetable oil in a large saucepan over medium–high heat. Add half of the pork and cook for 4 minutes, stirring until browned all over. Using a slotted spoon, transfer to a plate. Repeat with the remaining pork. Reserve the oil in the empty pan and reduce the heat to medium. Add the garlic and ginger and cook for 1 minute, stirring and scraping up any bits stuck to the base of the pan. Add the onion and cook for 4 minutes, stirring until soft.
  2. Return the pork to the pan with the shrimp paste and cook for 1 minute, stirring to combine. Add the coconut milk, bring to a simmer, then reduce the heat to low–medium and cook for 10 minutes, stirring occasionally until the pork is tender.
  3. Add the chillies and cook for 12 minutes, stirring regularly, or until the chilli is tender but still has crunch and the sauce is slightly thickened (don’t reduce too much or the coconut milk may split). Transfer to a serving bowl, scatter with extra chillies and drizzle with a little extra coconut milk. Serve with steamed rice.

Where does it come from?

  • As the story goes, native Bicolano Cely Kalaw started cooking the old regional dish in her small karinderia in Malate, Manila in the 1970s; the spicy meal known as gulay na lada in Bicol was then unheard of in the capital. From the restaurant, the famous train from Bicol to Manila could be heard rattling past, so her enterprising brother adopted the title, Bicol express. It stuck, spread across the country and even back home, where it goes by the same rousing name.
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