Coconut and Spice and Everything Nice

Laing (taro leaves in coconut milk) (Photo by Bong Bajo)

Naga City is good enough to eat. Indeed it is, mainly because the locals maximize the use of their resources—coconut and sili (hot pepper)—in most of their dishes. From the usual favorites such as the hot laing (taro leaves in coconut milk) to the ever-famous Bicol express and other local food finds, this region in Luzon relishes inimitable and distinctive recipes created for excellence. Plus, Naga is so unique and creative in devising a diverse cuisine that my mouth waters just imagining it.

The first stop in our gastronomic trip is breakfast at the Avenue Plaza Hotel, considered a first class hotel and restaurant strategically located along the busy streets of Magsaysay Avenue. The 6,000-square-meter hotel is teeming with buffet food for the hungry, the grazers and those who would like to be fed again and again. Tocino (cured pork), ham and eggs, juice, soup and others, nothing out of the ordinary is served. But this was just the beginning of a very long—and delectable—food trip.

Pinangat is a delicious blend of chopped coconut meat, shrimps, ginger, onion, garlic and a little bit of salt wrapped in gabi (taro) leaves and cooked in coconut milk.

A Plate of Naga Dishes

The initial taste of genuine Naga cuisine is at Bob Marlin Restaurant and Grill along Magsaysay Avenue, named after the musical legend Bob Marley and his favorite dish, blue marlin.

Pinangat, a Bicol pride, similar to Metro Manila’s laing, is served here. This is a delicious blend of chopped coconut meat, shrimps, ginger, onion, garlic and a little bit of salt wrapped in gabi (taro) leaves and cooked in coconut milk.

I was told that the secret to its sweet flavor lies in the use of the alanganing niyog (a cross between the ripe and young coconut), which makes the coconut meat not too hard or soft but just right; and the extra inclusion of the river shrimps or buyod, which makes the pinangat meatier. Not too spicy, hot or sweet, just so right for the palate.

The dinuguang baka (beef in blood) is also one to taste. Similar to Manila’s dinuguan, this one uses cow meat instead. Sautéed in garlic, sili, and onion, the beef is cut into small cubes and immersed in ox blood. The dish has a tangy taste, somewhat spicy, unlike the usual dinuguan and it’s not sour like the usual dinuguan taste but definitely a mix of both spicy and sweet.

Sili (hot pepper) (Photo by Bong Bajo)

Two of my favorites, the laing and the Bicol express, gave me two experiences that are really to die for. The former, cooked in coconut milk for an hour-and-a-half, has a creamy texture while the latter is made even more interesting with just the right amount of pineapple slices.

Meanwhile, two special dishes made even more extraordinary—the crispy pata and the marlin slab—have their secrets in being cooked longer than the usual, which truly softens the meats and make them juicy. Both the juice and the cream just explode in my mouth.

The resources in coconut

If you like coconut meat and coconut juice, then Chef Doy’s Gourmet Restaurant, a cozy place at Cereza, a collection of restaurants, coffee shops, bars and food places along the strip of Magsaysay Avenue, is definitely the place to be. Interestingly, the food here isn’t cooked in cooking oil. Instead, cooks use coconut juice to make your food! 

The chicken binakol, which is one of the favorites in the Bicol region, uses coconut milk in place of chicken stock. This is similar to the tinola (chicken in ginger soup) but it has a sweet tang. What is very surprising about this dish is the addition of several slices of coconut meat, which adds variety to the meal. The use of malunggay leaves and lemongrass gives it a sour-sweet smell.

Chicken Binakol (Chicken ginger soup cooked with coconut milk) (Photo by Bong Bajo)

Aside from the chicken binakol, kinunot na pating—shark boiled in coconut milk with pepper (sili), ginger (luya) and malunggay leaves—and binagoongang bagnet (crispy pork in fermented shrimp) are two perennial favorites. Bagnet is known as the chicharon of the Ilocos region. It comes with mango salsa as a side dish, so the saltiness of the bagoong and the sweet-sourness of the mango complement each other. The gisadong bagoong (sautéed fermented shrimp) finishes the flavorful entree.

The deep-fried boneless crispy hito (catfish) with ensaladang talong (grilled eggplant) topped with fresh onions and tomatoes, also tastes like chicharon. Mixed with the talong, the dish manages to bring in all kinds of pleasant tastes—sour, sweet and spicy.

Snacks and More Snacks

You haven’t been to Naga City if you haven’t tasted two of its specialties—the kinalas and the toasted siopao. Kinalas, which can be ordered at Cely’s Kinalas at Dimasalang and Barlin Streets, looks like beef mami (noodle soup), prepared differently and eaten with a special kind of sauce. Named because the meat (originally the head of the cow, now other parts) gets shredded and torn to pieces by hand, the kinalas has all the necessary ingredients needed for a tastier mami: eggs, noodles, cabbage and, of course, gravy, which makes the kinalas creamy and rich.

Toasted siopao (char shiu bao), available at the Naga Restaurant on General Luna Street, is oven toasted for at least 20 to 30 minutes with the same fillings as those of a steamed one—pork meat and eggs. It tastes like whole wheat bread with meat and proteins. It’s lunch, breakfast and dinner all rolled into one dish. There are also two variations of it in the market—the big ones for bigger appetites and the smaller ones, which can be consumed in about two to three bites. Making the meal a food binge, pancit lomi (fat noodles) and mami are served with it.

Toasted Siopao (char shiu bao, or pork bun) (Photo by Bong Bajo)

Getting to Naga City

There are two ways of getting to Naga City:

  1. A direct flight via Philippine Airlines, Cebu Pacific or Air Philippines; travel time is approximately one hour and 45 minutes; round trip fare is around P4,000–P5,000 ($90–$112);
  2. For the long haul, there are buses at the Araneta Center—Isarog Bus Lines, Raymond, RSL, Penafrancia Tours and Philtranco. Most start operations at 4:30 a.m. and end at 10 p.m. daily. Travel time is between 8 to 9 hours. The fee is around P800 to P1,000 ($18–$22). 
Excel V. Dyquiangco

Excel V. Dyquiangco

Excel V. Dyquiangco describes himself as a "dreamer, an adventurer and a mentor." Between working free-lance for magazines and surfing the Internet, he inspires, encourages and builds “passion for some people who have lost theirs along the way.”