Bicol express is a spicy Filipino dish made of pork, shrimp paste, and chilies simmered in coconut milk. It is rich, savory, and deliciously spicy. So good with rice!
Traditional Bicol Express is primarily made with fresh coconut milk, fresh krill (called balao or alamang in the Philippines), and lots of long green chilies and red chilies. A small amount of pork is only added as a complementary ingredient.
Nowadays, pork has become the star ingredient of Bicol express. Fermented shrimp paste (bagoong alamang) is also used instead of fresh alamang. Chilies are of course still added but only sparingly or according to the taste preference of the cook.
What does it taste like?
I would describe the taste of Bicol Express as a simple form of coconut pork curry. It's rich, spicy, and savory with shrimp paste as its base flavor. Although it is less complex than other curry dishes, I consider it one of my favorite spicy food to cook. It is simple to make and uses just a handful of ingredients.
Why is it called Bicol Express?
Based on online sources, Bicol express was originally called "vegetables with coconut milk and lots of chilies" in the Bicol region. During the 1970s, a person by the name of Cely Kalaw entered a cooking competition in Manila. Her official entry was this seemingly simple Bicolano dish.
Her brother suggested naming it after the Bicol Express railway train as it doesn't technically have an official name during that time (source). The rest is history as they say.
And here are the ingredients you need to make Bicol express:
Pork belly is the best part of pork for Bicol Express. Its texture is a perfect complement to the saltiness of the shrimp paste and the natural sweetness of the coconut milk. In this recipe, I use a combination of pork shoulder or butt (pork kasim) and pork belly for a meatier texture.
Use fresh garlic and onion to make the best Bicol express. Add fresh ginger if preferred.
Use a generous amount of long green chili pepper (called siling haba in the Philippines). It is generally not spicy and meant to be used as a "vegetable".
To make Bicol Express spicy, add red chilies like Thai chili pepper or siling labuyo.
The secret to making the best Bicol Express lies in the type of coconut milk you're going to use. Fresh coconut cream or kakang gata will definitely give the best result flavor-wise. It will curdle and release that delicious fresh coconut oil (see photo above).
And because fresh coconut milk is not always accessible, canned coconut milk is the best substitute. Avoid using those that contain thickeners. It should, at the minimum, only have coconut milk and water. If it has thickener or other ingredients, your Bicol express may not curdle and can look cloudy which is sadly what I had when I made and took pictures for this recipe.
How to Make the Best Bicol Express
And here's how to make it:
A few notes:
- Cut pork into small pieces for a short cooking time. Add to the pan after sauteing the spices. Cook until no longer pink.
- Add the shrimp paste or bagoong-alamang and red chilies. Simmer everything in coconut milk or coconut cream mixed with a small amount of water until tender.
- Pour remaining coconut milk and green chili peppers. Bring heat to high heat and simmer until it curdles and oil starts to come out. If you prefer a smoother sauce, simmer just until desired consistency is achieved.
- Do a taste test. Add more red chilies to adjust the spiciness, if preferred.
That is it!
The best bagoong-alamang for Bicol Express
And finally, the shrimp paste. I don't recommend using the sweetened type i.e. the jarred bagoong guisado typically served for kare kare; it has far too many flavorings.
The best alamang for Bicol Express, in my personal opinion, is the dried shrimp or fermented plain uncooked alamang. It's more authentic tasting and does not contain sugar.
Can I add vegetables to Bicol Express?
For variation, you can add these vegetables to Bicol Express:
- Green Beans - thinly sliced.
- Long Green beans
- Eggplant or aubergine
What to Serve with
Bicol express is best served with a warm cup of rice. If you want to serve it as a side dish, use less pork and add more chili peppers and some vegetables. I personally, love having this with tortang talong (Filipino eggplant omelet).
Shelf-life and Storage
Leftover Bicol express can last in the fridge for up to 1 week, stored in an air-tight container. To further extend the shelf life, freeze in an airtight container or heavy-duty freezer bag. Thaw before reheating on the stove or microwave.
Watch the Recipe Video
More Filipino recipes for your weekly menu!
- Pork Ribs Adobo
- Easy Pork Sisig
- Chicken Inasal
- Filipino Chicken Curry
- Sweet and Sour Chicken
- Chicken Salpicao
- Whole Fish Sweet and Sour
- Sarciadong Isda
Bicol Express Recipe
- 1 onion (finely chopped)
- 6 cloves garlic (finely chopped)
- 1 tablespoon vegetable oil
- 600 grams pork belly or shoulder (cut into small strips, note 1)
- 2 cups coconut milk (divided, note 2)
- 2 teaspoons bagoong-alamang or shrimp paste (unsweetened, note 3)
- 4-5 pcs long green chili peppers (sliced, add more if preferred)
- 2-3 pcs bird's eye chilies or siling labuyo (to taste)
- Heat oil in a pan or shallow pot. Add garlic and onion, and cook until fragrant and translucent.
- Add pork and cook until no longer pink. Pour half of the coconut milk, shrimp paste, and red chili peppers. Stir to combine. Simmer until the meat is almost tender.
- Add the remaining coconut milk and green chilies. Set heat to medium-high and simmer until it starts to curdle and natural oil starts to come out. If you prefer a smoother sauce, simmer just until desired consistency is achieved.
- Taste the sauce. Add more chilies if preferred. Remove from heat. Serve and enjoy!
Recipe Notes and Tips:
- Pork - use a combination of pork belly and shoulder for a balanced texture.
- Canned Coconut milk - Avoid using those that contain thickeners. It should, at the minimum, only have coconut milk and water. If it has thickener or other ingredients, your Bicol express may not curdle and can look cloudy which is sadly what I had when I made and took pictures for this recipe.
- Bagoong-alamang - use the unsweetened shrimp paste for a more authentic flavor.
- Ginger - add ½ thumb of ginger if preferred. Saute together with garlic and onion.
- Nutrition - calculated using pork shoulder as the ingredient.
Originally published on July 2020. Updated with new photos, video, and a streamlined recipe after further testing.
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