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
- 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
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!