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Supper Stars of Bicolandia

The region famous as the birthplace of movie stars and beauty queens is just as heralded for its cuisine. Here,s a list of what you shouldn,t miss. Story by Mariano Garchitorena / Photos by Lester Ledesma

Supper  Stars of Bicolandia

ON THE EASTERN stretch of the Philippines is a collection of South-East Luzon provinces that face the Pacific Ocean, all of which stand bravely against a year's onslaught of typhoons that brew in the Pacific and barrel into the country. These provinces — Camarines Norte, Camarines Sur, Albay, Sorsogon, and the two island provinces of Catanduanes and Masbate — are culturally bound together as Bicolandia. It is, more often than not, represented by its proudest tourist spot: the perfect cone of Mayon Volcano in Albay.

Before it came to be known as a destination for rugged adventure sports in Camarines Sur, butanding spotting in Sorsogon, and as the hometown of local screen legend Nora Aunor and recent Miss Philippines Venus Raj, all of Bicolandia had long been famous for its food — from the chili-laden Bicol Express to the savory salad of taro leaves called laing.

But there's more to Bicol cuisine than these two dishes. To guide us through a culinary adventure through Bicolandia, we enlisted one of its native sons, Noel Perdigon. Now based in Singapore, he runs 7,107 Flavors Restaurant (6 Raffles Boulevard, #02-02 Marina Square, Singapore; tel: +65 6334 7107) — ashowcase of the best of Philippine food, including the Bicol region's. The restaurant's head chef, Ronel Hingpit, whipped up nine of Bicolandia's most iconic dishes that you can try both in Singapore, or at many different restaurants as you travel through the region.

1 Kandingga

The kandingga is the Tagalog bopis' drier and darker cousin. Purists insist on using only the lungs of the kanding or goat (hence the name), which are sautéed with tomatoes, onions, lada and kangkong (swamp cabbage). Try it at Waway's Restaurant, Peñaranda Ext. St, Bonot, Legazpi City, Albay; tel: +63 (52) 480 8415.

2 Santan

If you're after a sugar high, the treacly sweetness of santan is the perfect fix. Made with panocha, gata and chock filled with pili nuts, the Bicolano's take on coco jam can be licked off the spoon, spread on crunchy banana fritters or spread on pastry. Buy your stash at RPM Pili Nut Candies at the corner of Elias St and Prieto St, Naga City, Camarines Sur; tel: +63 (54) 472 5813.

3 Laing

Laing is another quintessential Bicolano dish. Taro leaves — along with bits of pork, ginger, garlic, onion and coconut milk — are boiled to a certain soft consistency in a casserole, then simmered until the pork is tender. Shrimp paste and chili pepper are added. Local chefs advise against stirring the pot, so that the itchiness of the taro leaves doesn't spread to the other ingredients. Try it at Bob Marlin Restaurant and Grill, Magsaysay Ave, Naga City, Camarines Sur; tel: +63 (54) 473 1339.

4 Inun-on

Bicol's version of paksiw na isda or fish cooked in vinegar stew has a particularly intense aroma and flavor. Try it at 1st Colonial, Rizal St, Old Albay District, Legazpi City, Albay; tel: +63 (52) 481 1212.

5 Bicol Express

There are as many variants of this dish — gulay na lada (hot red or green finger chilis cooked in coconut milk) — as there are households in the Bicol Peninsula. The late famed restaurateur Cely Kalaw of The Grove-Luto ng Inay fame liked to repeat the oft-told tale that it was her brother who introduced the Bicolano dish to Manila, naming it after the express Bicol-Tutuban train, which they could hear from their Malate carinderia kitchen. Try it at Bigg's Diner, Evangelista St, Naga City, Camarines Sur; tel: +63 (54) 472 1501.

6 Sinanglay

This is fish stuffed with onions and tomatoes, wrapped in pechay and tied securely with lemongrass to keep the stuffing in (which makes it more aromatic), and simmered in coconut milk. As with most dishes, the grand finale is a sprinkling of chopped potent chili pepper. Try it at 1st Colonial, Rizal St, Old Albay District, Legazpi City, Albay; tel: +63 (52) 481 1212.

7 Kalingking

Kalingking is kamote (sweet potato) skinned and sliced into long strips, bunched together, dipped in rice flour and deep-fried in coconut oil. Sold for a few pesos in nearly every street corner, this is merienda fare a la cheapo.

8 Tinutungan na Manok

A variation on the gulay na manok theme, this dish has gata — except that the grated coconut is slightly burned in charcoal before pressing, infusing the meat with the sweet, heady aroma of dessicated coconut. Another take on this Bicolano classic is to mix chicken blood with the gata. Try it at Kaunan ni Tio Jun, Vinzon St, Albay District, Legazpi City, Albay.

9 Gulay na Tapayas

By Bicolano standards, gulay na tapayas is relatively light fare. It's a salad of young papaya (sliced according to your preference of thickness) doused with thinned coconut milk. Have it at Dennis Grill, West Park, Magsaysay Ave, Naga City, Camarines Sur; tel: +63 (54) 811 5074.

Cebu Pacific flies to Legazpi from Manila and Cebu. www.cebupacificair.com