The dish Bicol Express gets its name from the train that used to run from Manila to the Bicol region and back. (They recently reopened that line, but that’s a story for some other day.) Originally, it was meant to be a side dish for laing, one of the classic dishes of that region.
Laing is chopped-up taro stems and leaves sauteed with onions, garlic, and a bit of salt-dried fish before being simmered down with coconut milk into a delectably savory mush that goes down a treat on plain boiled rice. In Bicol, this dish is spiced to the hilt with siling labuyo (bird’s-eye chilies; nam prik in Thai) and/or the longer, milder siling haba (green finger chilies). However, since most people are rather tender-tongued, some culinary genius devised this concoction of fatty pork, coconut milk, and chilies to let people spice up the dish to their own liking.
Over time, of course, Bicol Express has evolved into a stew that tastes great even without the laing. In fact, it’s something like a modified binagoongang baboy with the addition of bagoong (shrimp paste / a milder sambal belacan). All you really need to enjoy it is a plateful of steamed plain rice; fried or roasted eggplants would, of course, also be nice. 🙂