Mention Bicol and the word “hot” easily comes to mind. Hot, as in the lava that flows from Mayon Volcano. Hot, as in the steam that spews out from the geothermal fields of Albay. Hot, as in the men and women who, if we go by surveys and statistics, seem to have no regard for family planning. Hot, as in the siling labuyo (bird’s eye chili) that grows in just about every backyard, ready for the picking.
I don’t know exactly why, but the Bicolano tongue seems to have a higher “spicy” threshold. Sinigang (sour soup) isn’t complete without its dip of siling labuyo crushed in fish sauce. Grilled fish is a bore without the requisite soy sauce spiked with sili. Even veggies–especially if they’re swimming in coconut milk–have a certain bite to them. A bite that will send the non-initiate running for a glass of water.
My tolerance for the hot and the spicy did not manifest until when I was already out of Bicol. Call it the latent Bicolano in me, but I never really thought that I have the “hot” tongue. Until my dormmates pointed out that my soup seem to be hotter than theirs. Or that my dip is a lot spicier. Or that I seem so happy wiping the sweat off my brow while eating spicy ginataang santol.
The sisters and the cousins who have since moved elsewhere are one in saying that they miss the sinus-clearing cuisine of home. Talk about scorching, but we do pride ourselves in eating Bicol Express, a truly fiery concoction where the chili is not merely flavor enhancer but main ingredient. It’s one dish that is definitely not for the faint of heart: I have seen one too many first-timers getting all teary and sweaty.
There are, of course, tamer versions of the fabled Bicol Express (which, I believe is named for the train that used to penetrate the heart of Bicol) with a lot more meat than chili. There are also the pinangat and the laing–both made from taro leaves. For me though, and for most of the fire-eating Bicolanos, it has to be hot, hot, really hot.