1) Bicol Express (seafood sauteed in coconut milk)
A specialty of the Bicol province, Bicol Express is a spicy seafood dish that also includes pork. The sweetness of the shrimp, the slightly chewy texture of the calamari, the delicate white fish along with the crunchy vegetables and the spicy coconut sauce was a heavenly combination. The overall flavor profile to me was sweet-heat.
2) Bagoong Fried Rice (fried rice with pork and shrimp paste)
Bagoong is a very pungent shrimp paste and not for the faint of heart, but mixed with the fried rice, you still get the salty-sweet pop of flavor without it being too overwhelming.
3) Ginataang Laing (taro leaves cooked in thick coconut sauce)
This is the first time I've ever had cooked taro leaves and in general, it reminded me of spinach in terms of flavor and texture.
The coconut sauce is the same coconut used for cooking the Bicol Express, but cooked longer so that it's thickened. With the coconut milk being cooked longer, the sauce seemed less sweet, but it still had a good flavor and still retained a little bit of heat.
4) Sisig (spicy diced pork with bell peppers and onions)
This was a really delicious dish. The pork is fried and the skin is included, so you get that fatty, meaty taste. The vegetables retain their crunchiness. With the chopped chilies included, the whole dish can give quite a punch unless you ask for milder heat.
It turns out you normally won't find this dish on the menus of too many Filipino restaurants.
Usually, sisig is a dish cooked by the men as a "drinking food." The guys would get together, drink, talk and eat and what they would eat are dishes meant just for this activity of male bonding, cooked by the men themselves. Since the sisig was so good, I think I'll have to find out about more of these types of foods so that I can try some other dishes.
I never really thought of Filipino food as being spicy, so other than the fried rice, I was a bit surprised by the other three dishes. When I asked my mom about it, she mentioned that the cuisine of the Bicol province in the Philippines does gear towards being spicier. Coconut milk is also used in a lot of Bicol cooking, which is a Malay influence on that region.
Both the Bicol Express and Taro leaves are Bicol specialties. She also mentioned that taro leaves have to be cooked just right or else they will leave an itchy sensation in your mouth and that Bicol cooks really know the correct way to cook the taro leaves. That's why you'll rarely see the cooked taro leaves on any mainstream Filipino restaurant menus unless there's a Bicol chef in residence.
As for why the sisig is spicy, apparently, a lot of the "drinking" foods also lean towards the spicier side because that's how the guys like it, especially when you combine that food with beer or any of the harder liquors. There's nothing really specifically regional about sisig or even "drinking food." It's a dish cooked in many different provinces.
The heat level of the all the dishes I ordered were mild, but even mild, you still got a little kick in each bite. The next time I order any of these dishes, I'll definitely pump up the volume so that I can experience the dishes as they were meant to be enjoyed, hot and spicy.
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