As the southern extremity of the main island of Luzon, the Bicol peninsula and the outlying islands are hemmed in at the west by an arm of the South China Sea, and at the east by the Pacific Ocean, Honesto General writes in the first chapter of The Coconut Cookery of Bicol.
A people of diverse tongues and customs, Bicolanos are bound together by their almost fanatical devotion to their unique and indigenous cookery.
General is an author of his time and generation. To make laing (dried taro leaves in coconut milk), for example, he advises doing all of the prep work by hand, because shredding (taro leaves) with a knife or pair of scissors is sacrilege; your parish priest or even the archbishop cannot help you.
He's old-time cheeky and pretty unrelatable to most modern readers, but where his jokes and religious narratives fall short, he makes up for with detailed descriptions of ingredients native to the Bicol region, accompanied by a valuable recording of the cooking techniques perfected by resourceful Bicolanos through the ages.
My paternal grandmother hails from the Bicol region. I've longed to ask her more about the foods she ate as a child, and hope to get an opportunity soon to gather that information!
Coconut as food
To the Bicolano particularly, the coconut is an essential part of the daily diet, General writes. Nothing is more refreshing than the water from tipong (young coconut) picked fresh at mid-morning before the sun gets too hot. The soft meat is absolutely delicious.
The meat of a fully mature coconut (laya in Bicolano) is grated and pressed for its milk, he continues. This milk is gata, the base for the recipes for which Bicolanos are known.
General gives tips for buying fresh coconuts from public markets (choose the nut that is starting to seed, he advises) and how to correctly milk coconut gratings, which he reminds us is really raw, wet coconut oil as opposed to what the English term 'milk' connotes in calling pressed coconut shavings 'coconut milk'.
To extract coconut milk, General shares a two-step technique traditionally used by cooks in the Bicol region. The first, producing a product called kakang gata (thick milk), is achieved by squeezing grated coconut into a bowl by hand, then massaging the mixture to coax as much liquid from the coconut as possible. The second step instructs combining the squeezed coconut (after extracting the kakang gata) with water and then straining this liquid into a cooking vessel (with a note to â€œalways cook the first and second milk at the same time).
Coconut and vegetable cookery
Gulay is the generic Bicolano term for vegetable dishes cooked in gata, General writes. Taking the same basic recipe, the Bicolano cook varies the menu daily by using whatever perennial or seasonal vegetables are available at the moment.
Gulay dishes begin with sauteing onions, garlic, ginger, lemongrass and salted baby shrimps called balao into a wok, adding dried fish and siling labuyo (hot finger chilies) to taste. Gata is then added and brought to a boil.
General lists an expansive selection of local vegetables and fruit added to this flavour base. In the Bicolano dialect, there is amargoso (bitter gourd), balatong (string beans), puso nin batag (banana hearts), batao (hyacinth beans), biringhinas (eggplant), iba (kamias), kalabasa (squash), kalabasang puti (bottle gourd), kalunggay (moringa leaves), dahong kamote (sweet potato leaves), kamoteng kahoy (cassava), kurakding (a local mushroom), langkang hilaw (unripe jackfruit), lubi-lubi (honeysuckle plants), natong/laing (taro leaves), paropagolong (winged beans), santol fruit, guava fruit, tapayas na hilaw (unripe papaya), and oddly, sauerkraut (stemming from rations supplied to Bicolanos during the Second World War).
Staples of the Bicol region: coconut cookery with gabi and sili
The gabi plant (linsa in Bicolano, taro in English) can be seen all over the Bicol landscape: in backyards and front lawns, along irrigation ditches, on water-logged clay beds and well-drained hillsides, General writes. Every part of the plant is used; from the tuber to the stalk, from the stem to the leaves and tops.
Laing (a dish of dried gabi leaves braised in coconut milk, called gulay na latong in the local dialect) is arguably one of the Bicol region's greatest exports. General dedicates one chapter to 'The Enduring Romance with Gabi', providing recipes for laing, pinalusag (fresh gabi leaves with ginger and lemongrass in coconut milk), gulay na linsa (gabi tubers braised in coconut milk), pinangat (minced shrimp and shredded mature coconut in rectangular gabi leaf packets), and tinumuk (also shrimp wrapped in gabi leaves, though here with double the ratio of shrimp, shredded young coconut in the filling and braised in a triangular gabi leaf packet).
Another chapter, titled 'The Burning Passion for Sili', opens with General sharing a quirky joke among locals: "In the face of an oncoming typhoon (which Bicol gets hit with several times a year), the Bicolano will prop up his sili bush before his nipa hut." He follows with a recipe for the region's other known culinary export, Bicol Express, named after the express train that used to run between Tutuban Station (in Manila's downtown) to the southern terminal at Legaspi City in Albay and back.
From companion dishes to mains and desserts
The concept of "companion dishes" was something new to me, helpfully explained by General. Gulay or any of the gabi dishes [are] usually served with a companion fish dish, he reports. Traditional Bicolano meals pair spoonfuls of sour soup eaten in between bites of the rich gulay, to cut through the delicious residue of coconut milk reduced to a cream.
These companion dishes include inon-on (fish stew with bitter vegetables and coconut vinegar), pinagrok (whole freshwater fish stewed with ginger in vinegar) and two types of cocido - in this regional variation, as fish stews soured with ripe tomatoes and calamansi, served with or without seasonal vegetables.
There are also recipes for ani-it (freshwater crab with water cabbage), kasag (saltwater crab with jackfruit chunks), tabagwang (river snails with garlic and ginger), tinumtuman (river clams and bamboo shoots) and kinunut (shredded shark or stingray meat) - this last being a true rural delicacy that I would admittedly try given an opportunity.
On desserts, General writes about two popular Bicol specialties: bukayo (candied coconut strips in brown sugar) and santan, a dessert that combines matamis na ba-o (or coconut jam) with chopped roasted pili nuts.
For natives of the Bicol region today, I wonder - are many of these dishes still prepared on a regular basis? I would love to hear your thoughts in a comment below!