When it comes to spicy Asian dishes, Filipino food is usually not the first cuisine that comes to mind. But since Peter and I are big spice lovers, I’m always on the hunt for more dishes to try. And while there are certainly many Filipino dishes with bold and vibrant flavors, there are very few that I can think of that compete with the spice of Bicol Express.
Bicol Express was allegedly created in Manila in the Philippines and named after the train that made its way to the Bicol region of the Philippines. I won’t pretend to be an expert on the origins of the dish but I do know a thing or two about cooking spicy dishes and let me tell you– this dish can be hot.
I simmered succulent pork belly in a rich broth of onions, garlic, ginger, lemongrass and coconut milk before layering in three types of chili peppers. I always find it a bit tricky cooking with fresh chili peppers since you can never be sure exactly how hot the peppers will really be until you’ve already cooked them up, but with Bicol express, let’s just assume that more. is. better.
Using a variety of chilis makes the dish colorful and beautiful but also ensures that you get the right amount of kick from the recipe. If you want to play it safe of course, use less chili peppers or exclude as many of the seeds as possible from the peppers before you add them in to the dish.
I wanted my Bicol Express to be spicy, but not deadly so I removed the seeds only from the jalapeno peppers and poured the finished dish over a bed of warm brown rice. In addition to adding in chilis near the end of the recipe, you’ll also add in a bit of Filipino shrimp paste also known as bagoong. Don’t let that scare you away. Shrimp paste is common in many Asian dishes (you just don’t realize it!) and adds a really unique flavor to your cooking.
A little goes a long way so scoop in just a bit if you’re nervous and add more if you’re feeling brave. You can even serve some extra bagoong on the side as an additional condiment for this dish.
This recipe is adapted from the wonderful cookbook by Amy Besa and Romy Dorotan “Memories of Philippines Kitchens”
- 1 tbs oil
- 6 cloves garlic, minced
- 1 large onion, diced
- 1 lb pork belly, sliced in to strips
- 1 tbs ginger, minced
- 1 lemongrass stalk, smashed and diced
- 1.5 cups coconut milk
- 2 tbsp shrimp paste (bagoong)
- 2 poblano chilis, chopped (with or without seeds)
- 4 jalapaenos, chopped (with or without seeds)
- 5 Thai bird's eye chilis (with seeds)
- In a large pan, heat oil over medium high heat
- Add garlic and onions and stir until onions are soft
- Toss in pork belly and cook for 3-5 minutes until the pork is lightly browned
- Mix in ginger, lemongrass and coconut milk
- Reduce heat to medium
- Gently simmer for 15-20 minutes until pork is tender and cooked through
- Spoon in bagoong and mix well
- Add in chili peppers and continue simmering for 5-7 minutes until chilis are soft
- Serve hot with rice
Adapted from the Bicol Express recipe by "Memories of Philippines Kitchens" by Amy Besa and Romy Dorotan