Bicol Express. Sounds like a train to you? That is exactly what it was. The non-stop train from Manila going south to the Bicol Region is called Bicol Express. The train’s long gone,and many take the overnight buses now. [As of end of June 2011, the PNR train from Manila to Naga resumed operations.] But the Bicol dish to which it gave its name, remains a favorite popular Bicolano dish. In Albay, we tried this dish in 1st Colonial Grill in Legazpi City and in “Let’s Pinangat” , a roadside eatery in Camalig, Albay.
Traditional Bicol Cuisine
Quite distinct from the local cuisine found in other parts of the country, Bicol is famous for its spicy, coconut cream-based dishes. Local folks here even eat raw “sili” (peppers) dipped in salt to go with their rice. By itself, it is a meal. Just watch them pop the “sili” into their mouths without touching their lips and following it up with rice scooped with their hands.
I’d say the Bicolano cuisine is truly local, “untouched” by Spanish and Chinese influences. Coconuts abound in the area. So with the local peppers. It is a natural consequence that their cuisine will use much of these local ingredients. Bicol Express may have a very American sounding name, but I will venture to guess that it had a local name before the famous train plied the Manila-Bicol route. “Laing” and “Pinangat” can only be Bicol as Bicol could be. Both use homegrown ingredients like taro leaves, and of course the “sili” and coconut cream. Back in Manila, the laing — taro leaves stewed in coconut cream — is a regular vegetable dish in many Filipino restaurants. But nothing beats eating it right here, cooked the traditional way.
Of late, many modern restaurants now fuse Western and Bicolano dishes. Starting off with the milk shakes, there is a joint called Bicol Blends right beside Hotel Amada and 1st Colonial Grill which serves modern-day fusion drinks for the adventurous. Sili Shake and Pili Shake , to name a few. And there’s Small Talk Cafe which serves up pizza and pasta fused with local dishes like pinangat and laing. We tried the Laing Pizza where the laing or taro leaves look more like the regular pesto on a pizza. But the laing pasta certainly has a very local, acquired taste. I liked it, actually. I could have also tried their Pili Basil Pasta, but there just isn’t any more room for more. For sure, I will have to also try Pasta Mayon when I head back in May. Pasta Mayon is laing(again!)-filled ravioli with tuna sauce. It is served in a way that it looks like a volcano with lava flowing.
Some Local Sweets and Pili Nuts
“Pili” is Bicol’s prized nut. Slightly more expensive than almonds, but they are so good one shouldn’t leave the place without trying them. You may find them in tetra paks, in plastic jars, in plastic sachets all over town. We got ours from Albay Pili Nut Candy along Rizal Street. It is reputed to be among the oldest pili stores, operating as a home business or cottage industry.
Sweetened or honeyed Pili Candies make for good desserts. But if you want to try some street food, check out those roadside stalls selling guinamos which is mashed bananas and sinapot which is banana fritters. You may also be interested how locals “bake” their rice cakes using only tin cans and charcoal. You find many versions of the rice cakes in this rice-eating nation and Bicol has its own version, for sure. All these rice cakes also make for good mid-day snacks or breakfast, and collectively go by the name “kakanin”which literally means “eats”.
Bon apetit! [:)]
More photos can be found in this TravelBlog site.