Adobo is commonly referred to as the national dish, but it hasn’t really been officially named that. And as delicious as adobo may be, it would make a poor representative for who we are as a people. If a national dish is meant to reflect aspects of our culture, if it is meant to be something that truly represents us, then adobo, for all of its merits, doesn’t quite do that.
It is, for all of its variations, a dish too homogenous to fully reflect the breadth of experiences of the Filipino. It is comfort, certainly, but one drawn from familiar sameness.
We could talk about lechon, which might indeed be, as Anthony Bourdain once said, “the best pork ever.” But there lies the rub. It is the best pork ever, which makes it a dish unavailable to a significant portion of our population, for both economic and religious reasons.
But there is the humble pancit, which is present in every menu of practically every eatery in the country. It is so ubiquitous and accepted that its presence is implicit in every important moment in a Filipino’s life. It is what’s supposed to grant us longer lives on each passing birthday. They mark a coming of age at graduations. They are ties that bind at a wedding. And at the very end of life, when people are gathered to toast those who have passed, pancit will be there, providing starchy comfort for those who grieve. It doesn’t matter if you are rich or you are poor, Christian or Muslim, Tagalog or Kapampangan or Ilonggo or Bisaya. We are celebrating. We are grieving. We are together. And we have pancit.
In a culture that is still so built around the welcoming of others, it is pancit that binds us in our differences. And in its many, many variations, each pancit dish come to reflect the diversity of cultures within the country. And it is a dish that continues to evolve, with new variations constantly being developed all around the country. As people gather up new experiences, as they gain access to new ingredients, they are putting together new pancit creations. Pancit is the dish that best represents who we are, because we put so much of ourselves in it.
The original panciterias were likely the first real restaurants that catered to the working class. Of course, at the time, the word pancit didn’t even indicate the noodle dish we all know today. The word is derived from the Hokkien pien sit, which refers to food that has already been prepared. This was food meant for Filipino workers back in Spanish colonial times, with Chinese vendors peddling hot food from factory to factory, serving hearty fare for people who spent all day toiling for the colonial masters.
Eventually, these traveling vendors established the panciteria, which were basically roadside stands that served the same Chinese fare that they once peddled on foot. And these places started to become known for the noodle dishes that they served, which were kind different from the more tradition Chinese dishes on the menu. They featured local ingredients, like the humble sayote gourd, and were sauteed Spanish-style in the method that we know as guisado.
The noodle dishes would be so inextricably associated with the panciteria that it would just take on the name pancit.
So let us just parse this story for a moment. Pancit is a dish that rose out of the strange alchemy of our colonial past. It began with industrious Chinese merchants, the tastes of hardworking Filipino laborers, and the colonial influence of the occupying Spaniards. It is a dish that would transcend the more traditional fare with which it was being served, a new culinary identity formed as these various elements came together. It would prove to be amorphous, unified in name but never truly form or substance.
“I just really love pancit,"
says Marc Angeles.
This is no idle statement of casual devotion. Angeles isn’t just some guy who loves pancit. He is the guy who loves pancit. He is the owner and general manager of Pancit Center, a humble little restaurant on Pioneer Street. He also runs a blog: pancitking.com. On his site, he documents his many travels around the Philippines in search of various regional styles of the dish that he loves so much.
“For me, this was a way to merge the two things I really like: travel and food.” Pancit provided the context for Angeles’ exploration of this country. He blogs under the alias Pancit King on his site pancitking.com. He documents his trips to various regions, going from one to panciteria to another, discovering what new unique forms they might have on offer.
“There are a lot of regional varieties of pancit, because it reflects our culture in general. Even though all of us are Filipinos, we have different languages and cultures. There are Bicolanos and Tagalogs and Bisaya. Each culture has its own preferences when it comes to food.”
“For example if you go to Bicol, their taste is what they call matapang. They put chilis to make things really spicy. And then they put sugar and a lot of salt. If you bring those dishes here to Metro Manila, it isn’t that sellable.”
“And there are regional varieties because each region has different ingredients available. It reflects the resources that they have. If you go to Quezon for the pancit habhab, they have a lot of vegetables, specifically the sayote. Pahiyas, their main regional festival, is a harvest festival. You can see that reflected in the food.”
And it doesn’t end with tradition. People are adapting pancit to suit their needs. You go to Mindanao, and you find less pork in pancit. You find people trying to make do with what they have, the dish still used in celabratory contexts even if there isn’t much to celebrate with.“In Zamboanga,” Angeles says, “I tried a pancit that had canned tuna on it.”
“I didn’t like it, but it was interesting.”
There are stories to the pancit. There is crunchy okoy on Bulacan’s Pancit Marilao, for example, because it was a means of making use of the okoy that wasn’t sold at the market that day. Rather than wasting the food, some enterprising Bulacueno decided to crumble them on top of noodles. It matches well with tart chunks of kamias, which bring a tinge of freshness to what are essentially leftovers
In Isabela, their Pancit Cabagan is the product of a marriage between a Chinese trader and a Filipina woman, and the industry they left behind. The trader, known as Dianga, would be responsible for bringing the production of miki noodles in the area. Pancit Cabagan is his legacy, his recipe surviving through several wars that leveled the restaurant that served the dish.
The production of miki noodles seemed to have a profound effect on the Cagayan valley at large. “If you go to Tuguegarao,” Angeles says, “there is a panciteria at every corner.” These establishments are serving Tuguegarao’s signature batil patung, a hearty, fortifying version of pancit that is practically a stew. The miki is topped with cara-beef, sprouts and a fried egg. It is also traditionally served with a soup, and a side of raw onions that will form the base for a dipping sauce of one’s own creation.
There are stories in the noodles, as well. Bacolod’s Pancit Efuven, for example, apparently takes its name from its creator. The noodle is made from the highest grade flour, and is one of the most expensive noodles one may buy. “In Bacolod,” Angeles says, “you’ll get Pancit Efuven, and there will be more toppings than noodles.” The noodle is like a local linguini, the noodle having more bite than your average pancit. Like a lot of Negrense food, Pancit Efuven just seems to go that extra mile in providing a sense of richness.
Out in Bicol, there is an even hardier noodle known as Pancit Bato. The noodle is made from the town in Camarines Sur from which it hails, but it serves as an apt descriptor as well. The noodles, before cooking, are completely stiff, a product of its extended stay drying under the Bicol sun. Cooked, it is surprisingly soft and pliant, but with a pronounced heft that speaks to its means of preparation. The noodle seems to have been developed as a means of preservation pre-refrigeration. It is our version of instant noodles, formulated way before instant noodles were a thing.
These stories are just there, unraveling in the noodles. You can tell from each dish whether a province or a region is near or far from the sea, whether it is a land of plenty or a land of frugalness. You can taste it in the ingredients, each bite a journey into another part of this country.
Marc Angeles openly acknowledges that what he sells in Pancit Center can’t be called authentic. He has messed with these recipes, toning down certain flavors and amplifying others, trying to find a balance between staying true to the roots while still offering something specific to the Metro Manila palate.
But that is the beauty of pancit. We accept that there is no singular form, just as there is no singular Filipino identity.
We have technically been a nation for over a hundred years, but that remains an artificial construct. There is just no getting around our own geography. We are an archipelago, and many cultures developed independent of each other. Every culture developed its own tastes and sensibilities, as well as languages, lore, art and music. And though these differences might have ended up being obstacles in this nation’s tumultuous history, the general thrust towards homogenization doesn’t feel like the best thing for us.
In recent history, that thrust seems to have only built up resentment. It certainly contributed to the idea of “Imperial Manila,” of a small group that declared itself dominant and decided that everyone should just follow suit.
Our differences ought to be celebrated. It’s a good thing, then, that we’re so good at celebrating. And no matter what it is that we’re celebrating, the one thing that will always be there is pancit. Whether it comes out of a packet, or on a bilao, or on giant piece of Tupperware. In happy moments and in sad moments and in everything in between. This is the constant that binds together the lives of every Filipino in this nation, a deceptively simple combination of starch of protein that sprang from our colonial oppression and serves to the tell the story of our people; of every people better than of our history books.
Of course, on birthdays, we eat pancit supposedly because the noodles represent long life. Given what we know about nutrition now, it seems unlikely that the continued consumption of the dish could ever lead to that. But it’s easy enough to believe when we think of the long life of pancit itself, how it has spread to all corners of this nation and continues to evolve. We will all be gone someday, and all the problems we have with this sad republic will become a distant memory to future generations. But in that far-flung future, I imagine that the Filipino will still be eating pancit, ingesting our culture one noodle at a time.•