Mention any of Bicol’s six provinces would conjure images of coconut-based, creamy, and fiery dishes. But the region is much more than its rich and spicy food. It has a wealth of gastronomic delights that you shouldn’t pass up while you’re there.
Made with pork, bagoong (shrimp paste), tomatoes, onions, green chilies, and gata (coconut milk), there’s probably no other dish that’s more Bicolano than this.
Bicol Express has become so popular that it has found its way into the kitchen of the humblest karinderya to the poshest restaurants across the country.
Its name was derived from the Bicol Express train (Philippine National Railways) that ran from Tutuban, Manila to Legazpi, Albay. Fun fact: The dish first became popular in Malate and was invented by Cecilia “Tita Cely” Villanueva Kalaw.
Villanueva Kalaw was a Laguna native who spent most of her childhood in Naga where she learned how to cook local dishes.
Taking inspiration from the region’s gulay na lada (vegetables with chili), she gave the dish her own spin by adding pork belly and bagoong while keeping two Bicolano staple ingredients: gata and chilis.
Usually eaten with steamed rice, iterations of Bicol Express feature chicken, fish, or seafood instead of pork.
An order of Bicol Express at 1st Colonial Grill in Legazpi costs Php355, while you can wolf down a serving for about Php80 in an eatery or karinderya.
One of Bicolandia’s most famous dishes is made of gata mixed with shredded gabi or taro leaves, siling labuyo (chili pepper), garlic, ginger, and sometimes, tanglad (lemongrass) and bagoong.
Some mix pork or fish bits, but Laing can stand well on its own.
For those with a more adventurous palate, you can try it as a pasta dish or even as a pizza topping like the one served at CWC Watersports Complex in Pili (Php250).
An order of Laing at Chef Doy’s Gourmet Restaurant in Naga is at Php155, while a serving is around Php35 at local eateries.
Similar to Laing, Pinangat is another dish with a coconut milk base. This time, gabi, banana, or coconut leaves are formed into pouches within which minced pork or fish is stuffed. These are then steamed over low heat in gata and spices.
This tender and creamy dish is best eaten when piping hot on top of steamed rice.
An order of Pinangat at 1st Colonial Grill costs Php99. Local eateries sell an order for Php50 to Php70.
Naga’s favorite comfort food, this noodle dish is known for its rich broth made from boiled cow’s head. Bits of cow or pig heart are also added as a garnish.
The name is derived from that point when the meat starts to separate from the bone during boiling, with “kinalas” in Bicolano meaning “to fall off.”
A bowl of Kinalas at Chef Doy’s Gourmet Restaurant costs Php110. A karinderya usually sells an order for Php50.
This tangy and spicy Bicolano delicacy uses minced santol (cotton fruit) cooked in gata, chilies, onion, garlic, and bagoong until it reaches a creamy consistency. Sometimes, meat or seafood is added, but just like Laing, this dish can be cooked and eaten on its own.
An order of Sinantolan costs Php265 at 1st Colonial Grill and about Php35 at a karinderya.
The name is from the Bicolano word for “to shred.” This coconut milk-based dish is made with shredded pagi (stingray), malunggay (moringa) leaves, and siling labuyo.
You can also find versions that use shark, crabs, or any kind of smoked fish.
An order of Kinunot na Pating at Chef Doy’s Gourmet Restaurant costs Php255. At a karinderya, an order costs about Php50.
No trip to Bicol is complete without a taste of anything with pili nuts. An indigenous nut that grows primarily in the Bicol region, it can be eaten raw, roasted, or caramelized.
This nut has a rich buttery taste and is high in protein, calcium, and potassium. Pili trees grow well in volcanic soil which explains why they thrive in Bicol.
Pili nuts can be used in a variety of delicacies and desserts from pastillas and tarts to cakes and ice cream.
Pili tarts are usually sold at 100/three packs at pasalubong shops across Bicol. 1st Colonial Grill’s Pili Ice Cream is at Php109, a pint costs Php325, and Php790 for half a gallon.
Sili Ice Cream
This quirky creation by 1st Colonial Grill has become so successful that it moved beyond mere hype to a must-try when in Bicol.
It’s made of coconut cream and sili powder and comes in four levels of spiciness: 1, 2, 3, and volcanic.
A cup of Sili Ice Cream is at Php109, a pint costs Php325, and Php790 for half a gallon.
This lesser known yet no less tasty Bicolano snack is a twist to the usual boiled gabi. Preparing this humble delicacy is no easy task, but each bite is satisfying as much as it’s filling.
Aside from boiling the root crop, it has the additional steps of scraping and mashing the inside, mixing the mash with coconut milk, before putting it back into what has become a gabi shell.
Kinaluko is usually topped with a generous drizzle of gata and sold at Php40/serving.
This snack is steamed rice cake topped with a coconut syrup locals call bañar, the Spanish word for “to bathe.”
Similar to Cebu’s Latik, the Bicolano version adds coconut milk mixed with brown sugar and water as a topping.
A piece of Catandungan Latik costs Php30, while a box of five is at Php150 and a box of 10 is at Php300.
There are several ways you can get from Manila to Bicol. If you prefer traveling by bus, there are several bus companies in Cubao and Pasay that have regular daily trips to the region’s major cities or municipalities like Daet, Pili, Albay, Legazpi, and Sorsogon.
Fares and travel times depend on the bus line of your choice.
Local airlines travel daily to Bicol’s airports, specifically to the new Bicol International Airport in Daraga, Albay, and the ones in Naga, Camarines Sur, Masbate City, and Virac, Catanduanes. Flight time takes about 45 minutes to an hour.
You can also travel via private transportation. It takes about eight hours from Manila to Daet, nine to 10 hours to Naga and Legazpi, and 12 hours to Sorsogon City.
Outsource the Planning
For a seamless trip, you may leave the planning to DOT’s accredited tour operators in Bicol. Click on this link for a comprehensive list of agencies.
Explore Bicol responsibly by making sure that you comply with the region’s health and safety protocols, such as wearing face masks and practicing social distancing.
Ensure that you have acquired travel authority at https://s-pass.ph/ prior trip. Bring a copy or screenshot of this along with your vaccination card and valid ID upon arrival.
For the latest travel information about Bicol, you may visit their official website or Facebook page. You may also review updated safety protocols and requirements on Philippine destinations at www.philippines.travel/safetrip or download the Travel Philippines app at app.philippines.travel.