I’ve always wondered how Bicol Express could be cooked with lots of chilies but without making the dish too spicy that it practically scorches the mouth and throat. The answer was so simple I wondered why I never made the connection before — scrape off the seeds and membranes of some of the chilies. Gee, I wrote about that in If you want your chilies mildly hot instead of very hot — how could I not remember? Anyway, now I have, it’s time to post an updated version of my Bicol Express recipe.
Bicol Express is pork strips or cubes and siling haba (finger chilies) cooked with coconut cream or milk. Very rich. Very spicy. Some versions include ginger, some include dilaw (turmeric), some include bagoong or shrimp paste. I am allergic to shrimps, including bagoong, so I omitted it.
There are so many varieties of chilies. The finger chilies that grow locally are milder in heat and preferred for cooking Bicol Express. The idea is to use a generous amount of chilies without making the dish inedible.
If you want a Bicol Express that is just comfortably spicy, use less chilies. I could have simply done that. But chilies have a wonderful flavor and texture beyond the spiciness (not mention the color they add to the dish) and I really wanted to use a lot. The trick? Divide the chilies into two batches. Slit the chilies in the first batch vertically, scrape off the seeds and membranes then slice into thin rings.
Simply slice the chilies in the second batch into thin rings.
About the lemongrass, garlic and ginger. If you have the time or the inclination, you can mash them together using a mortar and pestle. I didn’t have the time so I just cut them all as finely as I could.
When cooking the pork in oil, you can simply saute the meat until no longer pink or, better yet, you can keep cooking until the edges start to brown. Caramelization of the meat’s natural sugars gives the dish richer flavor and color.
Season with patis (fish sauce), not salt, and use broth, not water, for even deeper flavor.
- 300 g. of pork (shoulder or belly), cut into one-inch cubes
- 12 to 15 finger chilies
- 1 large onion (or two shallots), peeled and thinly sliced
- a thumb-sized piece of ginger, finely chopped
- 6 cloves of garlic, finely chopped
- 2 stalks of lemongrass, finely sliced (see tips)
- 3 to 4 tbsps. of cooking oil
- 1 c. of coconut cream (see how to extract coconut cream / milk or substitute powdered or canned)
- patis (fish sauce), to taste
- Heat the cooking oil in a pan. Add the pork and cook over high heat, stirring often, until no longer pink. Optionally, you can wait until the edges start to brown a little.
- Add the ginger, garlic and lemongrass. Cook, stirring, until fragrant, about a minute.
- Add the chilies and the onion. Stir. Season with fish sauce.
- Pour in about a cup of broth. Bring to the boil, cover, lower the heat and simmer for 50 minutes or until the pork is tender.
- Stir in the coconut cream. Adjust the seasonings. When the sauce starts to bubble and thicken, turn off the heat.
- Serve the Bicol Express with rice.