Saturday, December 8, 2012

Diet? Ano 'yun?: Deconstructed Bicol Express and Bagoong

My mom hails from Gubat, Sorsogon, in Bicol. I wish I could lay claim to being a full blooded Bicolano, but I cannot. I can speak our version of Bicolano, called Gubatnon, but I still speak Tagalog in Legazpi and Naga. I barely understand the cooking outside of my hometown too, but I take pride in the recent trips I've taken to visit Gubat on my own to learn more about the food and places thereabouts.

I feel more in tune with my Tagalog side, really, but man, there's a flair for gata (coconut cream) and sili (chilies) that rages within me and I guess I am learning, albeit slowly, the ways of Bicolano cuisine. Because man, sorry Pampanga, my Luzon gastrnomic epicenter is Bicol, with Ilocos a close second.

I have always loved Bicol Express (a dish named after the Manila-Naga train line) but only learned that what I knew as Bicol Express was the Tagalog version in my college days, when I met students from Bicol University in the YMCA Student Conferences in Baguio. I was cooking Bicol Express in one of our inuman sessions in Baguio once (sorry, FEU) and a full blooded uragon  whom I befriended asked if he could cook side by side with me and present his version of Bicol Express. I said sure. So while I was loading mine up with pork belly, he was chopping up tomatoes and loads of siling pansigang (long green chili). I offered up what one would usually see in the streets of Manila, pork belly stewed in coconut cream with a healthy amount of chili. He served what was basically tomatoes and chili sauteed in bagoong (shrimp paste) and accentuated by crisp chicharon (rendered pork rinds). I was shamed man. An uncle also told me that Bicol Express is basically chilies stewed in coconut cream, where the coconut cream is reduced enough that it separates into oil and cream, as this makes it easy to pack and longer lasting and that the spicy veg dish was a favored travel and peasant food as the kick of the chilies made one consume less of the dish and more rice, fuel for the tiring day ahead. The addition of pork was rare back in the day, as pork was expensive. If pork was present, he said, it was in minute quantities. Also, the use of patis (fish sauce) as a flavoring agent is a Tagalog reimagination, and that the weak white color of carinderia (street food stalls) Bicol Express is unacceptable to Bicolanos.

So when Marvin, Boj and I opened the ill-fated St. Bede's Kitchen, we made sure we'd have signature dishes. Boj had his magnificent Mechado (flank steak stewed in tomatoes), Marvin his line of pancit recipes, and I had Tokwa't Baboy. But I wanted to come up with my own take to Bicol Express. So I experimented. This is the Bastardo recipe that melds TradIsRad techniques with my own twist.

Deconstructed Bicol Express

What you need:

Liempo (pork belly) cut into large strips
Gata (Coconut cream)
Siling pansigang (long green chili)
Siling labuyo (bird's eye chili)
Cayenne pepper (optional)

for the Bagoong
Uncooked bagoong
Cane vinegar
Small pork rinds
Siling labuyo
Brown sugar 
Dried bay leaves


How to do it:

There are three components to this dish, because, well, that's what deconstructing a dish means: you break down a recipe to different parts. 



This is an integral part of the dish because this is what gives it flavor. I planned to write about my take in bagoong on a separate post, but I'm just reusing a recipe I wrote before. It's a long and tedious process that is well worth the effort. The recipe is based on the super sweet bagoong I enjoyed green mango slices with, the one in a big tub that a man on a bike contraption carries around, along with large glass jars of water filled with green mango and singkamas (jicama) slices. This recipe was first posted on, a  friend's food blog when I guest posted there with my laborious take on Kare Kare.

First, start with chicharon, cabron.

There are two ways of going about the chicharon (pork rind crackling) part of the bagoong, you can do it the old school and simple way: boil fat and skin in a bit of water and let the fat render over low heat ‘til it gets crispy and golden brown (really, this process works better if you want to store the bagoong and not use it up all of it in one go).
I bought fat and skin trimmings from a nearby supermarket, but if you can’t find some, just have your butcher separate the fat and rind from pigue (pork butt/shoulder) or kasim (foreshank) and cut them into medium sized cubes. Add them to a deep sauce pan and do not add water, add oil halfway up the trimmings. Do this with everything at room temp and turn your stove to the lowest setting you can get it to. I had to turn the knob counter clockwise to get the flame as small as I had to get it. Now, this will take time and attention. Wait for the fat to simmer, there will be a lot of oily froth, small bubbles that tell you that the drying out process is working. You don’t want to crisp up the fat too fast, you want to dry it out as much as you can without actually air drying out in the sun.

Be patient with this, and I promise, the rewards are going to be awesome. Mix it up regularly, as leaving it to its own devices will mean that the bottom layer’s temp will rise and crisp up the rinds before you dry out the top layers. You should end up with something like this:

Doing this in a large batch gives you two options: you can re-fry some in very hot oil and get home-made chicharon (you can even freeze this at this stage, think: instant chicharon) and you can use some for the bagoong. Put them aside and not snack on them. This is a test of will.

Sauté garlic in oil until golden brown, add onions and caramelize (a fancy term that simply means to cook on medium heat ‘til translucent and soft). Add bagoong and bay leaves and sauté for a while. Once you’ve evaporated most of the liquid, add chilies, sugar and vinegar and leave alone ‘til it boils, uncovered. Add cayenne pepper powder, now lower heat to the bare minimum and let all of the liquid simmer out. This is crucial, if you want to keep the cracklings you will add to it crispy and not soggy. When you simmer out all the liquid, which will take, again, time and attention so that you don’t burn the bagoong, you can add the cracklings, which will then soak up all the flavors of the bagoong and keep it like a tight, crispy bagoong flavored crouton. Most people tell me my bagoong looks like corned beef. I say, “Yes, exactly how I remember the bagoong I so love on the green mangoes I ate as a kid”.

In this one, I added popped chicharon. But I'd advise you don't pop them when you add them.

Now that you have your bagoong ready, let's tackle the meat then.

Lechon Kawali

This one's tricky. Real tricky. I have tried many ways to get the pork skin to pop the way I want to. As you can see in the picture, the one I made recently was more traditional Lechon Kawali (fried pork). But I've tried popping liempo in many ways. 

Here's one I did not boil and slow-dried in the oven before frying in super hot oil.

Here's a three kilo monster that I stuffed and handed over to the local pugon (wood fire brick oven).

But for this recipe, I just used the quickest way I knew. Boil the large pork belly strips until fork tender. Dry them out as you cook the bagoong, in enough cold oil to cover them at least half way and low heat, color them 'til deep dark brown. Let rest for a bit as you heat up the oil and add them one by one so that you don't lower the oil's temperature. You need the heat to get maximum poppage. See, when you boil the pork, you work the skin and it gets thicker. When you brown it over low heat, it contracts again, but it's already been expanded, so when re-fried in hot oil, it re-expands and pops. Just how much is dependent on two things: just how dry you got it on the first fry and the temp of the oil in the re-fry. You can omit the boiling part if you can slowly dry it out in an over as the initial stages of cooking will mimic the expansion brought about by boiling.

Now, let's move on.

Express Sauce


Take bagoong and saute it for a bit. Add chopped siling labuyo and gata. Let gata reduce over a gentle simmer. Add loads, and I mean loads of chopped siling pansigang and reduce further. You can take it to the point where it breaks into oil and cream, but it really won't look good, so I just thicken it up to a sauce.

To serve, chop pork belly to cubes, line 'em up and top with the sauce.

Some notes:

The pink tinge of the sauce is because of the cayenne pepper I added and the color of my bagoong. I found that deconstructing it like this sates the craving for something crispy that a lot of people have while keeping the traditional flavors of the dish. It also makes it more presentable and delectable. And oh, this is Pulutan Tayo Diyan-perfect. Also, if you're out of the country and cannot get hold of uncooked bagoong... OK... fine... use the bottled crap from Barrio Fiesta and other providers that are exported. Sigh.
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