Wednesday, August 10, 2016

The flavors of Bicolandia

The Bicol region boasts of many things to enjoy -- from its picturesque tourist attractions and delicious "eats". It comprises six provinces - Camarines Norte, Camarines Sur, Albay, Sorsogon, Catanduanes and Masbate, all of which offer a number of lovely and interesting places to see. Of them, arguably the most popular and most visited by tourists is Mount Mayon in Legazpi City, which is the center of economic activities not just of Albay, but also of Bicol region as a whole. Mt. Mayon, which is an active volcano with a near-perfect cone, is very often described as "majestic" for one reason: it is majestic indeed! Its postcard-perfect beauty is captivating, mesmerizing.  
The Philippines is indeed fortunate to be blessed with this land mass that draws hordes of tourists all year round whether it's in a peaceful or eruptive state. Interestingly, an "angry" Mayon, spewing lava that glows in the dark of night, is as huge an attraction as when it's calm, specially for foreign tourists. I could say that I - a Manileña all my life although a regular vacationer in my father's hometown in Quezon - am blessed to be able to see Mt. Mayon thrice in my lifetime, and both in its 
calm and furious state at that!
But as I mentioned, the Bicol region is famous not just for the beautiful places to see but also for its delicious trademark dishes and very distinct flavors - the tanginess of coconut milk, the zing of "siling labuyo", the delightful sweetness of desserts 
concocted with pili, etcetera, etcetera. 
Yes, Bicol region is very much known as the land of "siling labuyo" or wild chili, which its people put, not just in (most likely) all of their viands - that could make one eat a lot of rice - but also in their dessert! Indeed, sili ice cream is one of the most peculiar 
and interesting food I've ever had! 

Sili ice cream at 1st Colonial Grill Express, Legazpi City

But aside from chili, Bicolano cuisine is also notable for the use of "gata" or coconut milk as main ingredient. Most of the popular dishes originating from Bicol are indeed "ginataan" or cooked in coconut milk. 
These are some of them:

Bicol Express 
Bicol Express at Cena Una in Legazpi City

The dish that Bicol may be considered to be most popular for is aptly called the Bicol Express. Interestingly, this viand is not named after anything related to food, but transportation! Bicol Express was the passenger train service from Manila to Bicol Region that started during the Spanish period and was unfortunately stopped in the 1990s due to various problems ranging from decaying railroad tracks and cabins and proliferation of informal settlers along the railways. The dish, however, that uses pork meat chunks, coconut milk and chilies, is still very much alive to this day, regularly cooked and consumed not only in Bicol Region but even in Manila and 
other parts of the country.

A huge wok of pinangat at Lets Special Pinangat in Camalig, Albay

Probably next in popularity is the Pinangat, which is more widely known in Manila as Laing. Its home is Camalig town in Albay, where it is sold frozen as "pasalubong" in roadside eateries and stores at P45 per order. Pinangat is a vegetable dish having taro leaves and coconut milk as main ingredients but there are some variations to its recipe

Tilmok at Sweet Talk Cafe, Legazpi City

One variation that I know of is the Tilmok, which is crab meat wrapped in taro leaves and cooked in coconut milk. It tastes much like pinangat, only it has 
added crustacean flavor.

Kinunot na Pagi 
Home-cooked kinunot na pagi

Also, there is the Kinunot na Pagi, which is flaked stingray cooked in coconut milk and added with lots of chili. This dish is a popular "ulam" or viand to have with rice, but is likewise a favorite "pulutan" or bar chow by those 
having a round of drinks.

Aside from food cooked in "gata", Bicol is also known for other dishes 
considered as "merienda" fare. 
These are:

"Kinalas" of Naga City 
A bowl of Kinalas at Adamme's Pahingawan Diner, Naga City

Naga City is in the province of Camarines Sur and is the home of some unique gastronomic delights. One of such is "kinalas", which is the city's own version of the Philippine noodle soup dish "mami". The word "kalas" means to remove or fall off, and is most likely used to name the dish because in making the broth, pig or cow's head is boiled in water for hours until the meat falls off. The meat and some of the brain go into this soup dish, then added with a special orange-colored kinalas sauce plus the mami noodles, boiled egg, chicharon (crispy pork rind) and topped with fried garlic, 
chopped scallions and of course, chili.
In my latest trip to Bicol with some co-workers, we found out that kinalas is indeed popular in Naga, and could be had in many roadside eateries and restaurants. But while a steaming bowl of kinalas is easy to find in Naga, a decent place to go to and eat it could be a challenge looking for - we failed to find a parking space in all of the restaurants we went to so we had to contend with eating in a small roadside eatery. Thankfully, the kinalas, although on the salty side, was delicious, the hot soup bringing comfort to our already growling stomach. As added comfort, a bowl of kinalas 
was really cheap - not even P50.

Paksiw Naga 
Paksiw Naga at Pan de Cielo in Manila 

Naga is likewise home of a rather interesting dish - Paksiw Naga. 
To us who are from Manila, Paksiw is either pata, lechon, bangus (milkfish), or other fish, but in Naga, Paksiw is beef meat with some innards and does not come with just a little sauce but is actually soupy - the broth coming from continuously boiling beef. Truthfully, I was a little culture- shocked when my order of Paksiw Naga in another restaurant on another occasion was put down on our table. It was nothing of what I expected! Nonetheless, it was good - sour, of course, as vinegar is 
its main flavoring, and was a nice accompaniment 
to a plate of garlicky fried rice.

Pancit Bato
Pancit Bato at Pan de Cielo in Manila

Some parts of the Philippines have their own version of the popular Filipino noodle dish pancit and Bicol is not lagging behind. The town of Bato in Camarines Sur has Pancit Bato, which is much like the popular canton. The ingredients - meat and vegetables are the same ones used in pancit canton and even pancit bihon. The difference lies in the noodles used, which is made from wheat and lye and sun-dried. The noodles are either flat like fettuccine or thin and tubular like canton. It is best for merienda, specially when paired with toasted siopao, which is another Bicol original. 
Siopao is originally steamed pork buns but the toasted variety is baked. It originated from Libmanan town in Camarines Sur, where the 3N Bakery that has now invaded Metro Manila, started selling it and eventually 
made the toasted siopao a popular merienda item. 

A "bilao" of pili at Cagsawa Pasalubong Center in Daraga, Albay 

Meanwhile, the Bicol Region is also popular for the pili nut which is processed into various types of dessert such as tarts, cake and mazapan, or the kernels simply candied by being cooked in oil and sugar. Pili nut products are very popular "pasalubong" items by visitors to Bicol, who bring them back home 
to their family and friends. 

A trip to Bicol is indeed one enriching experience that could makes one's eyes and stomach full. I urge everyone to embark on it even once in a lifetime. In one of my next posts, I'll be sharing more of the restaurants 
I've visited and the various food I've tried in different places in Bicol.
Happy eating!