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Pancit: Chinese import but all-Filipino

IN times of grief and strife such as these, we celebrate every little thing, and nothing says celebration at a Filipino table better than a platter of pancit. To be fair to this noodle dish, it has been a star for a long time, even and especially in times of plenty.

Filipino Food Month’s webinar series, Philippines on a Plate, presented a talk called “Untangling Pancit” last week, covered the bases like its origins and its spread.

Meah Ang See, advocate for Chinese-Filipino heritage and director of the Bahay Tsinoy Museum in Manila, gave a lesson on etymology. For example, the Hokkien word for rice is “bi,” and the spread of Chinese rice culture is reflected in our food’s names: biko, bigas, bihon, bilao, bilo-bilo (a glutinous rice and coconut treat, uncooked rice, a kind of rice noodle, a flat round tray used for winnowing rice and serving dishes, a desert made of small glutinous rice balls in coconut milk and sugar). 

Pancit is another noun, borrowed again from the Chinese migrants — pian e sit, literally meaning food that is convenient to cook. “It’s the fastest. You boil some noodles, add some recado (other ingredients); you’re done.” It’s proto-fastfood nature came in useful in the 1700s, when it boomed due to the colonial tobacco monopoly policies in the Philippines. On breaks and after work, cigar-rollers and other factory workers would go to migrant Chinese vendors selling — what else? —  the easy-to-cook pancit. The recipes became known to the locals, and soon, it was common to cook them at home. On the other hand, in a trickle-up story that took a century, the humble pancit that was once for toiling factory workers came to be placed on the tables of some of Manila’s restaurants, and hasn’t left since.

The talk had a broad definition of pancit, including noodle soups such as mami and lomi in the pancit lexicon. “It’s just really the Philippines that take all of these pancit and make it so rich. In every region, every barangay will say that they have the best pancit of their town; or their province. I would love to believe all of them,” said  Ms. Ang See.

As a hybrid or transplant food, pancit becomes a symbol of cross-cultural and multicultural nature of the Philippines. “The Philippines is so diverse, and we’re so friendly to other cultures that we will take it, and make it our own,” she said.

Marvin Gaerlan, a so-called “pancit nerd” and the man behind the pancit-focused Instagram @pancitlove, has travelled to various regions in the Philippines in the pursuit of the noodle dish. He documents the pancit he finds in backstreets, up in the mountains, or by the sea. During his segment of the talk, he not only explained why the Chinese transplant food was so readily adopted by Filipinos, but also thoroughly altered it to own it; and then spread it.

One, he says that it was easy to cook (as its Hokkien name would suggest), and it is relatively cheap and filling. “The ingredients are cheap, and they’re a cheap source of carbs,” he said in a mix of English and Filipino. “Pwede siyang extender sa handaan, na hindi ka sisimangutan ng mga bisita (It’s used as filler as banquets, one your guests won’t frown at you for).”

It’s also very versatile, a meal that can be eaten any time of the day, which meshes well with other dishes (again, like at a banquet). It can also be made with all sorts of ingredients: the pancit lusay of Laoag, Ilocos Norte being an example. It is made with scraps from cutting miki noodles, then cooked with longanisa (local sausage), bagoong (fermented fish paste), tomatoes, and broth. The noodles also mix well with ingredients that are found in the vicinity: an earlier version of the popular pancit Malabon was made with labong (bamboo shoots, which gave their name to the city) and the seafood found in the town’s surroundings. The recipe as it is known today, with the spongy noodles, was developed a few generations later.

It also has to do with social contexts: pancit that is dry, fried, or saucy is served at more celebratory occasions like birthdays. “A pancit-less birthday is a travesty for me,” declared Mr. Gaerlan. He then points out that noodle soups like lomi are served at wakes and more somber occasions. That’s just for mainstream pancit: in recent years, people like him have been opening eyes to regional pancit, thus increasing their popularity.

Due to the ubiquity of pancit, it forms a part of many memories, thus making the dish global but very personal. “Ang mga pinakamamahal na alaala ko ng pancit ay pasalubong ng daddy na miki bihon (One of my most precious memories of pancit was my daddy’s treat of miki bihon).” In fact, when asked what his favorite pancit was, from all the towns he had been to, he simply answered, with some obvious pride: “Luto ng nanay ko —  miki. (My mother’s —  her miki).”

For more talks, videos, and seminar, visit the Filipino Food Month Facebook page at (5) Filipino Food Month | Facebook. — JL Garcia

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