The Search For The Best Laing And Other Bicolano Dishes Cooked With Coconut Milk
In this first of three parts, Metro.Style toured the Bicol region looking for the tastiest laing, sinantol, Bicol express, and more—and we went home with hearts full and bellies satisfied
Coconut milk, taro leaves, aromatics—laing sounds like one of the easiest but most rewarding dishes you can cook. But it is in this simplicity that it becomes quite tricky to nail. Because of how little you’re working with, you can’t mask it when you’re not using fresh coconut milk or the right kind of dried taro leaves. You can’t hide it when you don’t cook your aromatics right. That’s why many people may have their own versions of laing, but only a handful are able to do it perfectly—the Bicolano way.
So for the best laing, we have to go back to its source: Bicol.
Metro.Style joins the Best of Bicol Food Tour to get to the heart of Bicolano cuisine, and in this journey, we may have found the best laing, sinantol, and Bicol expressthat we’ve ever tasted.
Laing is basically dried taro leaves. But did you know that there are seven types of taro leaves in Bicol? In the province, taro leaves are usually hung by households to dry. This extra TLC affords them quality dried taro leaves, compared to the usually packaged dried taro leaves you get in the metro.
Best of Bicol Food Tour’s first stop—and our intro to Bicolano cuisine—was Que Pasa, a Bicolano-Spanish restaurant in Naga, Camarines Sur. According to owner Rica Buenaflor, there aren’t many Bicolano restaurants in the region because Bicolanos believe that the best Bicolano dishes are served at home. While that may be true, the presence of restaurants like Que Pasa lets tourists have a taste of authentic and excellent quality Bicolano fare without having to break their backs knocking on people’s doors for a meal. It helps that Que Pasa has in its employ a chef like Jet Sumayao, a veteran chef from Chef Chele Gonzalez’s Vask Gallery and former number one restaurant in Asia, Gaggan in Bangkok.
Que Pasa’s laing is superb, great for those who are not used to Bicolano cuisine’s spicy flavor profile. It’s made with both red and green chilies so there’s a depth to its spiciness, but not overpowering if you want to eat it with their crispy fried pinaputok na tilapia.
Different households have different ways of cooking laing. In Rica’s household in Naga, laing is usually cooked the keto-friendly and vegetarian way. That means no pork or shrimp, but with all the laing goodness still intact. How do they do it? Well, it’s a trade secret! Good for us living in Manila because Rica’s keto-friendly vegetarian laing is available through orders at @querica.ph on Instagram or at Gourmet Corner in Forbes Park, and at the Ayala Alabang weekend market.
If you’re heading to Albay for a glimpse of magnificent Mt. Mayon, drop by Sumlang Lake in Camalig to enjoy a Bicolano feast with the most stunning view. The laing in Sumlang Lake may not be as heavenly and rich as Que Pasa’s, but you can enjoy your meal aboard a floating restaurant, enjoying the view of Mt. Mayon.
Sinantol or santol is a mind-blowing dish I only discovered in Bicol. It’s made with the rind of cottonfruit or santol—yes, not the white flesh that surrounds the seed that we usually eat, but the orange rind that’s revealed after peeling the skin—and cooked in coconut milk. Sinantol is the perfect balance of salty, sour, and spicy, great as a side dish to fried fish or pork.
Que Pasa’s sinantol is also a must-try, one of the best I’ve had in Bicol. The secret of the richness of the flavor of sinantol is in the balaw that was used. Balaw or salted baby shrimp is Bicol’s version of bagoong.
Sinantol is also available for delivery from Que Rica in bottled form. And you know what, this is actually so much better than freshly cooked sinantol! Because as you leave the sinantol longer, it becomes richer and more flavorful. Magic, right?
Bicol express is probably one of the most popular dishes to have gone beyond the Bicol region into the rest of the country. Much like adobo, Bicol express is so varied depending on where and who is cooking it. But believe me, once you’ve had authentic Bicol express from Bicol, you won’t be looking at any other Bicol express in the metro.
Just like laing and sinantol, Bicol express is cooked with coconut milk and balaw. It’s also traditionally made with pork since it’s a viand that goes with heaps of white rice. And if you’re looking for the best Bicol express, look no further than Sumlang Lake’s Socorro’s Lakeside Restaurant. Socorro’s Bicol express is made with crunchy bagnet smothered in rich, flavorful Bicol express sauce. We’ve had so many servings of this, I had to take laps at the pool after to burn it all off.
many servings of this, I had to take laps at the pool after to burn it all off.
In other parts of Bicol, however, Bicol express is also made without the pork. In Rica’s household, they cook the dish without the meat because they serve it as a side dish alongside another viand.
Inulokan, Kinunot, and Ginataang Tinapa
When they say Bicol cuisine is made with coconut milk, they’re really not kidding. Who would have thought that you can make so many different dishes with just one ingredient? It was nice to discover these new dishes and here are our favorites.
Unlike laing, inulokan is made with fresh taro leaves. Be careful when cooking with fresh taro leaves, however, because it’s dangerous to eat them fresh. Again, never, ever, ever eat raw, uncooked taro leaves.
Inulokan’s more popular version is pinangat, which is basically fresh taro leaves wrapped and bundled together and cooked in coconut milk for hours. I like inulokan better though, because it has a sour zing that doesn’t come with pinangat. This sourness comes from calamansi and crab meat added to the inulokan’s taro leaves bundle before it’s cooked in coconut milk. Visit Sumlang Lake for a really beautiful inulokan dish. Their secret? It’s cooked for hours in a traditional palayok.
Another interesting discovery we made in Bicol is kinunot. In Bicolano, it literally means “to tear apart” and that sounds about right because kinunot is made with flaked fish, coconut milk, and malunggay (not taro leaves, for once!).
In other parts of Bicol, kinunot is still made with baby shark. It’s an old tradition in the region to eat these, but it has since started to die down to protect the sharks. Now, kinunot is made with pagi or stingray boiled in vinegar, salt, and ginger.
We dropped by the beautiful and exclusive Siama Surf in Gubat, Sorsogon, owned by furniture designer Milo Naval, and we got to see up close how kinunot is cooked. Let the second piga or pressing of the coconut milk boil and then add garlic and onion—that’s right, no sautéeing needed. Add in the boiled stingray, then the malunggay, and cook until the liquid has reduced. Easy, but super delicious and healthy!
One of our final stops in Bicol before we headed home was Lola Sayong Eco Surf Camp in Sorsogon, home to surfers from all over the world. It’s a beautiful model of community-based eco-tourism that gives livelihood to locals.
Apart from its really chill and cool vibe, the surf camp is home to the inventive food of cousins and surfers Emil Eugenio and Nico Mercader. Lola Sayong’s menu is a surprise with out-of-the-box dishes that marked the perfect culmination to our Bicol trip. A must-try in the “kitchen” is their Smoked Fish Out of Hell, which is essentially tinapa cooked in coconut milk and chilies. According to the chefs, they stumbled upon this recipe one day when they were stuck in the surf camp during a particularly bad storm. All they had in the kitchen were tinapa and coconut milk—and so this dish was born. The penicillin of the Bicol food world!
This article is the first of a three-part series on Bicolano food.