Bicol is a region in the Philippines that abounds with coconuts. It provides our nation (and exports to other countries) with coconut oil. Its locals are additionally well known for being a huge consumer of their own native chili; some even chew them with steamed rice and other viands. In this manner,
Bicol became known for its coconut-and chili based dishes. Chilli or a chilli plant is very vital in every household, to the point that when a tropical storm strikes (Bicol Region is situated along the typhoon prone area of the Philippines), the safety of their well loved chilli plant is prioritized than any other possessions they have in life.
Having been diagnosed as hypertensive, I am constantly doing research about the healthier versions of the dishes that I used to enjoy with meat/pork. Bicol Express is a well known dish which started in the Bicol Region of the Philippines. The stew is created by making use of meat, green chilis, fresh coconut milk, shrimp paste, onion, ginger, and garlic. In Bicol, the dish usually makes use of meat/pork and cooked with the coconut milk until almost dry and oily. When I was a child I asked my father why it's called Bicol Express? He would joke around and say, because the dish is too spicy, it will make you run for water as fast as the PNR (Philippine National Railways) train that is headed to the Bicol region!
Whether this story is true or not, I don't have the foggiest idea. All I know is, the dish speaks true of how people in the Bicol region is characterized; brave, daring, resilient, and known for their excellent and fiery hot dishes in the kitchen. Some would say, because the Bicol region produces the best kind of chillis in the Philippines. It is true, but there are other regions that yield strong chili variants too. What I can let you know without a doubt is this dish tastes great and I give credit to the Bicolanos for concocting it. Bicol Express these days has such a large number of varieties that pretty much everybody that has cooked this dish had changed it to their very own preference or inclination.
How to make a healthy version of Bicol Express? Here is my own version of Boneless Bangus Belly In Bicol Express Sauce.
1 kilo boneless bangus (milkfish)
2 whole coconut, grated, with a yield of two to three cups pure coconut milk and one cup of the second extraction mixed with ½ cup of water
10 pieces long and green chilis, seeded and chopped
1 medium sized ginger, sliced thinly
2 stalks of lemongrass (the white part chopped finely, the leaves tied in a knot)
1 head garlic, chopped finely
1 red onion
1 teaspoon of olive oil
4 bird's eye red chilis finely chopped, (optional if you want the dish fiery hot)
100 grams shrimp paste/bagoong
200 grams pineapple tidbits (Del Monte)
fish sauce as seasoning
2 cups of corn oil for frying the fish
For the milkfish marinate:
1/4 cup vinegar
3 cloves crushed garlic
salt and pepper to taste
For the fish coat:
Mix equal amount of cornstarch and flour (I used ½ cup for this dish). Season with salt and pepper.
Spring onions or onion leeks, chopped
2. Marinate the sliced bangus (milkfish) belly pieces in a mix of vinegar, garlic, salt and pepper. Add drops of Worcestershire sauce. Marinate at least one hour before frying.
3. Coat the cut bangus pieces with salt, cornstarch, pepper, and flour mixture. Coat evenly on all sides and deep fry in corn oil. Do not overcook.
4. Fry each piece until golden brown, Drain excess oil by placing the fried fish on paper towels, set aside.
5. In a large wok, pour in the second extraction of coconut milk, ginger, garlic, onion, lemongrass, and shrimp paste, add a teaspoon of olive oil and keep stirring (in medium heat) until the sauce starts to thicken.
6. When the coconut mix comes to a rolling boil, add the green chilli fingers, keep stirring until the sauce becomes thicker.
7. Lastly, add the first extraction of coconut milk and cut pineapple tidbits, Bring to a boil till sauce becomes thick, season with fish sauce. Pour over fried bangus belly pieces, top with freshly cut spring onions, and best served over steamed white rice. Add red chillis if you want a hot and spicier dish.
My version of Bicol Express does not utilize the burning hot version like how the Bicolanos create it. I am into spicy food, but my level of spice cannot be at par with the Bicolanos tolerance for their traditional hot and spicy dishes. I'd proudly say, it is a gentle and milder version, but without compromising the quality and taste of a good Bicol Express recipe. I also made use of milkfish as the main ingredient to make it a healthier version of this popular Filipino dish. If you prefer it SUPER spicy and hot, adjust the amount of chopped chillis used and prefer not to discard the seed and white membrane. With the right amount of spice and kick from the chilli, you can truly appreciate the meaning of this dish.
Happy cooking and eating!