Siling haba – the skinny green finger chili – is normally used in Filipino cooking to accentuate the flavors of dishes like sinigang, binagoongang baboy, dinuguan, and laing, adding a pleasant bit of heat and an almost floral aroma. More recently, though, the humble siling haba has been gaining ground as a primary ingredient in its own right in lieu of either bell peppers or imported jalapenos. Some restaurants have been making a localized version of jalapeno poppers wherein siling haba are split, seeded, stuffed with cheese, rolled in rice paper, and deep fried. Others take the bigger, longer peppers and stuff these with a pork and shrimp forcemeat before steaming.
At our house, however, our take on this is a throwback to old-school Bicolano cuisine courtesy of Ate Sion who has been working for our family for over three decades. Her version is reminiscent of Bicol Express, but has a spicier taste and a more rustic look and feel to it.
This is gulay na lada. In the Bicolano dialect, the word lada refers to chilies of all sorts from the fiery siling labuyo (bird’s-eye chili) to the milder siling haba. Gulay na lada, however, refers specifically to siling haba that have been chopped coarsely and stewed in coconut milk with fatty pork and the dark green leaves of the chili plant. Thus, unlike Bicol Express which is essentially a three-note dish (sweet, spicy, and meaty), gulay na lada has a more complex taste to it. The sweetness of the coconut milk is made nuttier by the warm heat and fruity flavor of the chilies. The slightly bitter chili leaves add a strangely rich, vegetal taste that goes well with the savory pork.
It’s like laing, only lighter as the chili and leaves don’t have the starchy heaviness of taro in both root and leaf. That said, it makes for a perfect rustic weekend lunch when paired with rice, steamed okra, and fried eggplant slices.