There’s More To Bicol Cuisine Than Coconut and Sili
Take a tilapia, cheap and ubiquitous. Then chop up some kamias, ginger, onions, and lemongrass into small, fine pieces. Now soak that mixture in thick, freshly squeezed coconut milk, simply seasoned with salt and pepper. Then tuck all that inside the newly caught fish. More salt and pepper. Wrap it up snuggly in just about any leaf lying around; pechay is best. Now poach. Not in water, not in butter, but in second-press coconut milk. Serve. Unravel. Savor.
This is the sinanglay, a favorite Bicolano dish of Rica Buenaflor. “Make sure to serve it with rice,” she says, beaming with pride as she describes one of the dishes from the cuisine she champions. “That reminds me of my days in the farm.”
The farm is in Bicol, where the non-Bicolana was properly introduced to the food she learned to love and eventually advocate. Her husband, Carlo, is the true Bicolano. He heads Bigg’s, a leading restaurant chain in the region serving a mix of Western food and local comfort options.
Their farm has an abundance of coconuts. And she eventually found out that, in Bicol, coconut is king: “When we moved to Bicol in 2006, I got so curious [about the cuisine] so I would go to the kitchen and watch how they would cook. I tried learning it from my Nanay and even the drivers, who cooked so well. I’d watch them and I’d learn. I can say I really learned it from the grassroots.”
And so began her journey of uncovering the delicious offerings of Bicol. “Bicolano food is very low key, very rustic,” she says. “The region is prone to typhoons, so the food adapts to that. They cook with whatever they find available in nature.”
Such as the tinuktok. Find lukadon, a variety of young coconut popular in Bicol. Chop up the meat and set aside. Take some shrimp or crab; whatever’s fresh and smells of the sea. Chop it up, too. Now marry the coconut and the seafood and form into balls. Simmer in a light broth with chili leaves. Squeeze in some calamansi for good measure. Sip on a rainy day. Natural. Simple.
In 2015, while still living in Bicol, Rica decided to enroll at Le Cordon Bleu Paris. “Slowly, it just unfolded,” she says. “It was a calling that I always had ever since I was young. I’m actually not yet done. I’m finishing next year.” She’s been taking the most intensive set of classes that begins at 7:30 in the morning and ends at 10 in the evening, six days a week.
Her stint at culinary school only heightened her interest for Bicolano cuisine: “I would put footnotes on how to apply French techniques in Bicol cuisine! During the class, I would think that [a traditional technique] is the same as what my Nanay taught me. Let’s say for butter and gata. It opened my mind: All these techniques can be applied to elevate the cuisine.”
An example is the tinutungan. Grate a coconut into fine strands. Pure and fragrant. Now place that over live charcoal. Burnt. Then squeeze out the milk. Gray, smoky, otherworldly. Use to cook as you would ginataang chicken. French? Proudly Bicolano!
“When I came home, I decided to apply everything because no one’s championing Bicol cuisine yet,” Rica says. Through the Best of Bicol, she’s able to advocate the cuisine, and more, to Manila, the whole country, and even abroad. “It exists to promote the best that the province has to offer!”
Rica and her husband established the movement way back in 2012. They started out by finding proudly Bicolano products, services, and talents, and then showcasing these through events and collaborations. Later on, backed by her kitchen proficiency, she expanded the movement to also champion food. “It was our way of calling out to Manila and saying, ‘take a look at Bicol!’,” she says. Soon the Best of Bicol also offered food tours that allowed tourists to explore the many delicious spots of the province.
Along the highways of Albay, Bicol, one will find puto sa bao. Think: puto bumbong but more indulgent. Take some malagkit. Place macapuno at the center. Cover with more malagkit. Steam in a coconut shell. Three seconds, done. Instant gratification.
Rica expanded her efforts even more through her food line, Que Rica, within the Best of Bicol movement. After living in Bicol for 10 years, Rica and Carlo moved to Manila with five kids in tow. But her whole team of about 20 Bicolanos also came with her. “When the project [Que Rica] came, it became a sense of pride for them,” she says. “I was hesitating, but they all said go.”
These days, she juggles motherhood, her full-time responsibility as distributor of a footwear brand in Southern Luzon, management of their Spanish restaurant, Que Pasa, in Bicol, and product development for Que Rica. The rest, her team takes care of. “Now, it has a life of its own. My hesitations were erased,” she says, all thanks to the immense pride the line gives not only to her staff but also to every Bicolano behind every product.
One is a community of women in Camarines Sur she has tapped to produce Que Rica’s bottled taba ng talangka. Rica taught them food safety, sanitation, and how to properly market their product. To this day, she still hosts training sessions and helps procure equipment for them. “The women end their day so happy after bottling. Your heart is just so full [because of that],” she says.
Theirs is as much joy from the timitim. Take cassava root. Grate until fine. Squeeze out the juice. Mix it all up and steam. Imagine: sapin-sapin but silkier and smoother. Top with pili nuts.
“A [specific Bicolano] ingredient that I’m championing is the pili nut!” says Rica. “Pili is a product Bicol is known for, but it’s always just for pasalubong. Always just candied. I started looking into it more.”
What she found out is the nut’s great potential as a superfood and a product to enter the luxury specialty food market. “The pili nut is being positioned as the healthiest nut in the world. We found out that the world production of pili nuts is supplied 90 percent by Bicol. The only country that cultivates pili nuts is the Philippines. The two conditions that make Bicol poor—typhoons and volcanic soil—are the two conditions that the pili nut requires. I said this story has to be told and valorized.”
Rica’s plans are as many as her passions. She has plans of formalizing the Best of Bicol movement, introducing more Que Rica products to the market, and of course, finishing her Le Cordon Bleu Studies. She dreams of her children carrying on the torch she’s started. “Fulfilment comes from knowing that I bring pride to my family. And the employees [and communities] that help me. I know I am not alone.” The work continues.