Food and the Filipino
Feast and Famine

Republic of Pancit

Filipino pancit varieties

NEXT TO rice, pancit is the perennial item on the Filipino dining table. Even to a Westerner, Filipino cuisine means: 1. adobo; 2. lumpiang shanghai; and 3. pancit luglog. Such is the impact of pancit in our culinary profile.

The convenience and simplicity of this starchy food is the key to its popularity in this country — more so now, with the younger set hooked on noodles in all shapes and forms.

Pancit, borrowed from the Chinese, then innovated and adopted into our cuisine, connects us to our Asian roots. But more importantly, it is a veritable Pinoy comfort food — easier to cook than rice, and more versatile and food combination-friendly. It is the faster fast food. In fact, “pancit” is derived from the Hokkien “pian i sit,” which means “something conveniently cooked fast.”

The first pancit that landed in the Philippines is likely to have been made from wheat noodles brought as baon by a Chinese trader. Sometime later, another Chinese merchant probably tried his hand on making his own noodles when his baon ran out. With usisero (inquisitive) natives by his side, he may have experimented with batch after batch until he produced something that looked like what he may have had in his homeland. But since rice, not wheat, was on hand, he made rice noodles. Rice starch differs in nature from wheat, having less gluten that provides that familiar “bite.” Rice noodles are whiter in color and have less “muscle” in body. But that may not have mattered much to the homesick Chinese trader; pancit was pancit, and anyway rice noodles could be had in China as well.

The Chinese also taught us that if you wish to go through many decades, then you should eat birthday noodles instead of cake. Noodles represent long life and good health; they must not be cut short so as not to corrupt the symbolism. In lieu of candles, the stir-fried miswa noodles or thin canton noodles would be topped with red- or orange-tinted quail eggs; sweet, golden, fried shallot slivers; and green onion leaves.

Even “everyday” noodles are eaten with that hidden desire to have a healthy life. But that will hardly happen if you eat “yagit pancit,” or a starch-on-starch combination that will also make you lose the fight against weight gain. Yagit pancit is pancit stuffed in pan de sal, pancit sandwiched between slices of white bread, pancit and rice. Yes, we are talking pancit ulam. No long-life noodles here—there are not enough nutrients in noodles to subsist on them alone or combined with more starch.

But here we are with a younger generation gone gaga over instant noodles, which have invaded every grocery, convenience store, and call center in the country. In some ways, it really is the ultimate convenience food. Even if one does not have hot water to cook it, the crispy noodles can become a snack by themselves. Time for a confession: I have indulged in this convenience myself, when faced with serious deadlines, eating the uncooked noodles as if they were shing-aling without the spice. Instant noodles are pre-cooked, after all, deep-fried into their crispy incarnation before being packed. I remember reading somewhere that high-temperature frying of noodles somehow turned it carcinogenic, but since that hasn’t been fully explained to me yet, any fear I may have of a deadly noodle remains on hold.

Still, there is nothing like the real thing — and we have so many of it, too! Because the Chinese merchant’s rice noodles or bihon are easily breakable, a variety with egg was added down the line. Rice noodles with eggs are usually considered as — surprise! — “egg noodles.” If mongo-bean starch is used, sotanghon (glass noodles or vermicelli) is produced.

Credit soy sauce for ensuring the presence of pancit in Philippine home cooking. Soy sauce or toyo’s nutty, delicate flavor complements the linear taste of rice noodles. Sautéed in toyo and broth, the bihon also turns golden brown, making it look all the more appetizing and “saraaaap (delicious)” by Pinoy standards.

There’s also the hodge-podge of chopped ingredients, sautéed with the seasonings, that give a pancit dish more layers of taste: finely sliced veggies (like onions, cabbage, green beans, young corn, bell pepper, etc.); finely sliced meats (pork, chicken breast, chicken giblets, pork liver, etc.) and seafood and greens (fresh shrimp, oysters, squid, with wansoy or cilantro, kinchay or Chinese celery, onion leaves, and much more.) All these rich ingredients beef up a pancit and give it its distinct character. The more toppings, the better. The more costly the toppings, the better. The toppings are also clues to a pancit’s “hometown,” which will certainly have its trademark produce — oysters and shrimps for a coastal town, for example, and pork crackling for hog-growing areas — dressing up the noodles.

But while there are many kinds of pancit, it comes in only two forms: dry or with soup. Pancit guisado falls under the dry form, although broth is involved in making it. Aside from broth, rice starch, soy sauce, and then the toppings or sahog complete the pancit guisado recipe. The broth for sautéing the noodles in can be either soy sauce-ginger based or shrimp liqueur-based. But sometimes, the bored cook combines these concoctions. Another kind of “dry” pancit comes with sauce, like pancit Malabon.

Noodles with soup include pancit mami, pancit molo, and the Ilonggo’s pride, batchoy. Usually the broth is chicken-based. The hearty noodle soup often comes with sahog like slices of chicken or beef, a sprinkling of chopped spring onions and chicharon, and bits of toasted garlic.

But there is still so much that can be done with pancit. How about a super-fiber pancit made with rice bran or darak? Or gata (coconut) sauce for pancit instead of using heavy cream? Anyone for pancit sampler plates or an all-pancit buffet?

There is, though, one more kind of pancit: it comes in a brown bag borne home by husband for the wife each time he reaches the bedroom behind schedule for reasons less than saintly. It is a miracle pancit and has saved lives, sustained domestic peace, and kept the noise down. It’s a wonder no one has made millions yet out of Peace Pancit!

A pancit chart

Here’s a closer look at different types and styles of pancit and a regional map of pancit specialties:

Noodles by how they are cooked:

  • sautéed or “dry” — pancit guisado, pancit canton
  • soupy or “wet” (with broth) — mami, pancit molo, batchoy
  • deep-fried-noodle basket — pancit canton (another version)
  • a la luglog — dipped first in boiling broth to soften dried noodles
  • double cooked — fried-steamed or fried-boiled, etc. (This is the latest style of cooking noodles.)

Noodles by thickness:

  • medium to fat noodles (like the Japanese udon) — miki, mami, canton, lomi, pang-original Pancit Malabon or Luglog, North Park Noodles, pancit buko (which is actually not real pancit as it is made with coconut meat)
  • thin to fine noodles — miswa, bihon, sotanghon, efuven (flat and thin, like linguini)
  • flat noodles like pancit molo

Noodles by make:

  • with wheat flour
  • with wheat flour and egg
  • with buckwheat
  • with mongo bean starch
  • with or without egg
  • with flour and kalabasa (squash) mash (also ube, saluyot, etc.)

Noodles by region

  • Pancit Habhab (Lucena, Quezon) — sautéed miki noodles served in a cone and eaten sans utensils. It takes practice sucking the noodles without them ending up all over your face or your shirt, but it’s fun!
  • Dinuguan on pancit (somewhere in Bicol) — just imagining this can make you almost taste it, doesn’t it? Yum.
  • Pancit Molo (Iloilo and Bacolod, Negros) — clear chicken broth with wontons (considered pancit because of their wrappers), lots of garlic, and crushed chorizo.
  • La Paz Batchoy (Iloilo) — soup with thin mami noodles and topped with lots of chopped innards, garlic, and egg. It is the perfect hangover kicker of all time. The secret ingredient in the broth is guinamos or Visayan bagoong (fish paste), which gives the dish a sweet-salty-brine note.
  • Pancit Luglog (all over the country) — Made distinct by its orange shrimp-achuete sauce enriched with toppings of chicharon (pork cracklings), tinapa (smoked fish), kamias, wansoy, shrimp, etc. Many regions have adapted this style of cooking pancit, although they vary in the kinds of noodles that they use. Some of the popular pancit luglog are from Pampanga and Tagalog regions.
  • The way pancit luglog was made in my grandparents’ restaurant, the Aristocrat, in the 1950s was to pound the heads of hundreds of shrimps to make the richly flavored base for the sauce. Then the sauce was thickened—not with flour, never, never!—with beaten duck egg. The now sunset-colored sauce was intensified with achuete oil. Tinapa, chicharon, green onion leaves, garlic, and shrimp and sliced duck eggs made the pancit’s crowning glory. It was like eating spoonfuls of thick, milky, nutty butter, with flavors from the sea and freshened by the onion leaves. Dining on pancit luglog has never felt as decadent since.

  • Pancit Malabon (originally from Malabon) — It uses fat rice noodles that are first niluluglog. The noodles are tossed in a rich shrimp-achuete oil and topped with the freshest, fattest newly shelled oysters, squid rings, suaje or hipong puti (sweet-tasting shrimps) just out of the water, and wansoy leaves. Rosie’s Pancit Malabon is still legend!
  • Pancit Puti (Manila and other gaya-gaya places) — This pancit relies solely on the flavor of a good, hearty broth. Toppings are minimal. Some like this pancit, some don’t.
  • Pancit Canton (everywhere) — Probably one of the most popular pancits, this is a kind of pancit guisado with ginger-soy sauce flavor base. By habit, there is always a sawsawan of calamansi and more soy sauce on the side. Toppings vary, depending on the price. A de luxe pancit canton would include a piece of squid with fancy diamond-shaped cuts across it, several bola-bola, and a whole slew of chop suey on top.
  • Lomi (Batangas) — This delicious, al dente kind of egg noodle is usually strongly spiced with pepper. Lomi is popular in Southern Tagalog and has also made a mark in Chinese fast food. Lomi gets better as the ingredients become more expensive: from plain fish balls (cut into thin slices) to crab meat, shrimp balls, green peas—the works!
  • Pancit Sotanghon (Tagalog-style) — A “rich” dish starting from the noodle used: sotanghon, which is more expensive than egg noodles. The way my grandmother Aling Asiang prepared her superb, classic, Pancit Malabon is now a lost art. Hear ye: sotanghon noodles are kept in cold water till ready to be sautéed in hot achuete oil flavored with plenty of young garlic fried in it. Toppings would be flaked chicken breast, handfuls of golden fried garlic (which flavored the oil), and lots of freshly ground black peppercorn; boiled duck egg—its yolks pressed through a sieve, and the same with the egg whites. Only Navotas or Malabon patis was allowed to season it, along with calamansi. Wansoy provided the coup de grace.
  • Pancit ng Bataan — This is pancit palabok with tons of tinapa, because tinapa is one of the best products of Bataan (according to Luchi Roman Reyes of that region’s famous Roman clan).
  • Buddy’s Pancit-style ( from the BLTB region) — Pancit guisado with sayote strips.
  • Pancit Musiko/ Pancit Vigan (Ilocos Region) — A soupy kind of miki dish meant as merienda (so I guess this would be like a mami soup). The miki noodles are made in Batac. It was christened pancit musiko because after the town fiesta procession, this was the dish given free to the musicians.
  • Efuven Pancit Guisado (Iloilo and Bacolod, Negros) — Flat and thin noodles that got baptized with the name of the noodle maker.
  • Pancit Marilao (Bulacan) — Luglog with crumbled day-old ukoy as added topping.
  • Pancit Langlang (Tagalog region) — A vegetable-topped pancit, much like a laksa, the mixed vegetables dish popular in the same region. This is a very wet pancit or a soupy pancit served in a shallow bowl.