Chop PHX: Bicol Express
This Week: Bicol Express from Gingerroot (1076 W. Chandler Blvd. Chandler).
The Basics: Bicol is a region in the Philippines famous for this spicy food. The express part of the name is a reference to the train that runs between Manila and Bicol. Gingerroot owner and chef Susan Bilas also says the name is a reference to how a hearty bowl of Bicol Express can help transport your tastebuds back to the Philippines.
Bicol express is a thick and deliciously salty coconut milk based stew that is prominently flavored with thinly sliced pork and baby squid. The other key ingredient is sitaw a ridiculously long but tasty Asian green bean. Freshly slice green chili provides the dish's substantial heat. At Gingerroot, Bicol express is served with a generous --and by generous we mean massive-- bowl of rice.
Susan Bilas explains how she developed this dish after the jump.
The Making of Gingerroot's Bicol Express:
Bicol Express is a standard dish in its region of origin but unfortunately Bilas is not from Bicol, she's from the northern end of the Philippine near Manila. However, once she opened Gingerroot, customers began to request the dish on a regular basis. Bilas has a stated policy of culinary flexibility, "If you want it, I'll look it up and make it for you."
Luckily her assistant cook is familiar with the cuisine of the Bicol region and between her and several Filipino cookbooks they started work on a Bicol Express recipe. Some back and forth ensued and she settled on an objective: "I wanted the taste to capture the [flavor] of the squid and pork."
To do this she excluded some popular variants of Bicol Express that use shrimp and various vegetables. In the end she worked out a recipe that focused on the squid, pork and sitaw. Red and green bell peppers are used to lighten what could otherwise unrelentingly heavy bowl of stew.
Did you say squid? Yes, baby squid --think calamari-- and a healthy dab of shrimp paste. Both impart a strong briny flavor to the sauce. Many find that delicious but if you are not ready to swim with the squid, this might not be the place for you to start. It is also worth noting that the chili used in this dish are not attenuated in anyway. If you can't handle spice you will definitely want to eat around them or simply request the dish without it.