322 – On An “Express” Bicol Express

Once upon a time, the Philippines had an extensive railway system that connected several provinces – the Bicol Express line among them. This train line connected the capital Manila and the Bicol region at the southernmost section of the Luzon landmass.

The line eventually contributed its name to a dish consisting of coconut milk, pork, chilies, and shrimp paste. The dish had been originally sold by vendors who would board the train whenever it would make a stop at the province of Camarines Sur – at least, before the government banned eating on trains.

However, it was only after Cely Kalaw – a cook based in the Malate district of Manila – christened the dish as Bicol Express that the name stuck. Kalaw’s brother suggested the train line’s name after he heard the locomotive pass by their home. Bicol Express became a signature dish at her eatery, and has become a staple in Filipino cuisine since then.


This is one of Dad’s signature dishes as he hails from the Bicol region. He uses the first extraction of coconut milk and a chock full of green chilies for his version of Bicol Express. He does not scrimp on the chilies as people like him who come from the region often have a very high tolerance for spicy food.

On the other hand, this recipe was born out of necessity. I made this during one Friday of Lent; Filipinos traditionally abstain from eating meat on all Fridays of the season. Faced with the prospect of having no dinner, I headed out to a grocery near my place to buy the ingredients I used. My take on a non-meat version of Bicol Express was surprisingly well-received.

This quick version of this eschews a lot of the traditional ingredients for readily available ones. Canned tuna replaces pork to make it ideal for non-meat eaters, while coconut milk powder replaces the fresh counterpart in the interest of a shorter preparation time.


TUNA BICOL EXPRESS

Ingredients:

  • 4 cans tuna, preferably in oil
  • 1 sachet coconut milk powder, dissolved in 250 ml hot water
  • Garlic, chopped
  • Onion, chopped
  • Green finger chilies, thinly sliced – the number of chilies can be increased
  • Salt and pepper to taste

Procedure:

1. Heat a cooking pan. Open two cans of tuna and add the oil to the pan.

2. Let the oil heat up, then add in the onion, garlic and chilies.

3. Cook until the liquid evaporates, and add the drained tuna from the first two cans alongside the rest of the tuna.

4. Let boil, then add in the coconut milk. Season with salt and pepper to taste.

5. Gently stir everything, and then simmer for around 10 to 15 minutes until the liquid further evaporates.

6. Turn off the heat after 10 to 15 minutes, and serve.


The spice from the chilies and the savory taste of coconut milk jive together for this appetizing dish. The original version of Bicol Express is often served with hot rice, and this one worked equally well.

Fortunately, there was still some left over from after I cooked it. I subsequently reheated this Tuna Bicol Express and added some shrimp paste. Adding the latter imbues a different flavor to the dish, with the umami cutting through the creamy coconut milk. If you add in a sweet-tasting shrimp paste, it will also tone down the savory taste – as it was with the subsequent version.

How about you? Are there any dishes you know of that are named after public transportation? Do share it in the comments section! If you tried out this recipe, let me know what you think by commenting down below.

Until the next post, bon appetit!

16 thoughts on “322 – On An “Express” Bicol Express

  1. Wow, that was a very interesting article packed with information. Thanks for sharing!
    Are you really not allowed to eat anything on the train? I travelled a lot on trains in Europe and they even have train-restaurants over there. Back when I had to travel to/from work by train in Germany and Switzerland, I often used the time on the train to have a sandwich for breakfast because time to have it without stress before leaving was too short. 😉

    Your dish sounds and looks very interesting and delicious. 😋👍
    Do you eat it just like that or do you accompany it with anything, like rice?
    I’m curious, because the way you describe it, it’s almost exactly the way that I prepare a tuna sauce for my pasta when I’m in a hurry 😁👍

    Liked by 1 person

    • You’re welcome, and thank you likewise for stopping by! 😁

      Well, transport authorities used to allow eating on trains – but unfortunately, some people abused the privilege and refused to clean up after themselves. This ultimately led to authorities banning food on the train coaches altogether. ☹

      The traditional version of this dish is usually paired with rice, and a lot of it! At least this one isn’t too unhealthy with the substitutes haha!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Thanks for sharing the history of the dish and steps to make it! Very nice. I would put some chili pepper flakes in there and jalapeno. Never been keen on spicy food but recently it’s becoming something of a thing for me. Tastes change in different seasons of like, I guess.
    Take care. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • Welcome, and thank you likewise for stopping by! 😊

      Hmm…not a bad idea, actually! My Dad does something similar to that. He slices birds-eye chilies into small slivers and adds them in for a spicy kick! 🌶️

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Looks so good👀💕 I never tried making coconut milk and tuna combo, so I’d give it a try. Thank you for the recipe😁

    For food named after rail…hmm, I can’t come up with any idea now, but Japanese people love to have the local bento box specially made to be eaten while people are onboard. People sometimes decide their destination just because they want to eat that special bento box from each region. And I gotta tell you, if you have a chance to visit Japan and buying a cup of ice cream sold in train, don’t believe the wooden spoon comes with ice cream. Those ice creams are always freaking hard😂

    Liked by 1 person

    • Welcome, and hope you enjoy! 😁

      Yeah, I think I read about that somewhere. Different regions there offer different culinary specialties; I even found one there that made use of deer meat (?) for their bento box or something.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. This tuna dish sounds strictly like a Asian thing. The U.S. does not pride itself with public transportation except in are big cities so I would be hard pressed to name a food after it.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yeah, I noticed that too. I’ve read that back in the old days, lots of cities there had train lines (if not trams). But sadly, most of ’em were demolished to make way for roads and highways.

      The Filipino diaspora over there would often cook this, but with pork and eschewing the shrimp paste entirely.

      Like

  5. Interesting info on the origins of Bicol Express. Glad to read about it since it’s one of my favorite Pinoy dishes. Thanks for sharing your recipe Monch! Seeing that it’s a non-meat alternative, I’ll try that soon.

    Liked by 1 person

Share your thoughts below!

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s