The Bicol region lies some 500 kilometers south of Manila, the Philippine capital, and is composed of six provinces. While a bit off the beaten path – most travelers to the Philippines opt for Boracay, Cebu or the Banawe Rice Terraces - Bicol surprisingly offers many options for the adventurous traveler. Recently exploring this land of fiery cuisine and majestic vistas, I was amazed at its diversity.
We rented a van and hit the national highway from Manila at 3 a.m. on what the driver claimed was to be a 7 to 8 hour road trip (wink, wink). Well, it was more like 10, pit stops and all. Nobody seemed to mind, however, as they admired the lush tropical vegetation and bucolic rural scenery along the way. At one point, of course, everyone (even almost the driver) in the van was asleep.
We reached Bicol’s main hub of commerce, culture and cuisine, Legazpi City in Albay province, a little past noon. With everybody famished, it was a good time to start with the cuisine portion of our tour.
The Bicolano culinary tradition centers on the use of coconut milk-based concoctions and the demonic “Siling Bikol” (see-leeng- bee-kohl), red hot, super-hot, chili peppers. Prominent staple dishes are “Laing” (lah-eeng), taro leaves cooked in fresh coconut milk mixed with peppers, fish, shrimp or meat and the fiery and popular “Bicol Express”, a strong mixture of hot peppers, pork, shrimp and coconut milk.
We stopped in the municipality of Camalig, just outside Legazpi City, and lunched at a roadside diner in true Bicolano tradition. The “Camalig Special Pinangat” diner specializes in what they claim is the true “Laing”, which they call “Pinangat” down here.
Their version has garlic, ginger, sea salt, coconut milk, lemongrass and either fish, pork or shrimp – irresistible with some steamed rice and a teaspoon of “Dinailan”, the ubiquitous Bicolano caviar-esque fish paste. After lunch, it was down to the fruit stalls for some sweet and juicy treats from Legazpi’s northern neighbor Naga – locally grown Formosa pineapples. Someone suggested we ought to continue with the food trip and check out the local market for more dessert options.
We found delightful rice-based delicacies with varying sweetness; there were “Putong Bigas”, “Kalamay”, “Suman sa Ibos”, and a local favorite, “Puto de Oas”. These delectable rice cakes are organically made from an original local family recipe handed down through generations and are rich in protein, iron, phosphorous, thiamine and riboflavin. We washed these down with just-crushed-five-minutes-ago sugar cane juice….heavenly!
Some travel mates who had stronger constitutions took a peek at the wet side of the market. Since Bicol is surrounded by bountiful waters, a variety of fresh-catch seafood is always available here. Our friends witnessed the proper way to cut up a “Pagi”, or local stingray.
We had been in the heart of Bicol for just two hours and everyone was happy, full, burping, and eager for more.