Known for their fiery chilies and rich coconut-based stews, Bicolano cuisine has been experiencing a steady rise in popularity. The food reflects the fresh bounty that is abundant in this region of the Philippines, which is a vibrant array of seafood, pork, and vegetable dishes flavored distinctly by the coconuts and peppers grown indigenously for centuries.
It comes as a surprise, really, that the first Bicol Food Festival only took place last 2019 in the buzzing city of Naga, Camarines Sur. Celebrated all month of September, it coincides with the more popular Peñafrancia Festival that honors the Virgin of Peñafrancia, the miraculous patroness of Bicol. This series of religious events is highlighted by an evening fluvial procession marking the return of the image from the Naga Metropolitan Cathedral to her home in the basilica.
During Peñafrancia, millions of Bicolanos gather to pay tribute, many coming home from the capital and everywhere else to join their families in prayer as well as some serious feasting. This means grilled seafood and meat accompanied by pinangat or laing (stewed gabi leaves in coconut milk), inolokan or tinolmok (a mixture of crab and coconut meat wrapped in gabi or squash leaves, then simmered in coconut oil), and cocido (an Albayano-style sinigang or sour soup), among many more flavor-packed dishes.
Naga Tourism head Alec Santos has confirmed that there will be no celebrations this year, although he does look forward to 2022 hopeful that things could start getting warmed up this year. “This year, it’s almost impossible [to hold it] so hopefully next year,” Santos says. “But, what I would really like to see is for the private sector to take the lead through the tourism stakeholders. This way we can jumpstart food tourism for 2022 by drawing as much attention to Bicolano cuisine this year.”
With the current restrictions brought about by the pandemic, all sectors will truly have to get creative with the promotion of Bicolano cuisine. In 2019, the food festival was mostly celebrated through cooking contests held in different venues. There was an inter-school cooking competition in SM Naga as part of the BITFEX expo. At the same time, the first Bicol Express Festival was launched and a cooking competition was held and participated by representatives from the different Sanguniang Panlalawigan of Camarines Sur.
Hopefully, Santos’s plea and call to action will be heard by his fellow Bicolanos so that his dreams—and ours—of a Bicol Food Festival next year will become a reality.