The Long and Short of It: An introduction to the noodles of the Philippines
Pin@ys love food, but Filipino food has not left a mark on American dining like Japanese sushi or Korean barbecue. Sometimes, Filipino food even gets a bad rap among American diners: “Who would make soup that tastes sour?” (That’s a Filipino favorite, sinigang, flavored with tamarind.) Nevertheless, the food we eat—mostly at home and at small local restaurants—is a part of our identity. Nothing proves that more than the history behind the Filipino cuisine and the vast origins of our food.
Pancit palabok. Photo by Eiliv-Sonas Aceron (Unsplash).
If you know me, you know that I never fail to order a pasta or noodle dish whenever I eat at a restaurant. While adobo and lechon are moderately well known Filipino go-to's, it takes a true foodie to know the noodles of the cuisine. There are a few Filipino staples when it comes to the noodle offerings—one of which might surprise you with its Western characteristics!
Pancit is the word for noodles in Tagalog and typically means a thin, tubular rice noodle; its consistency is similar to the noodles used in Vietnamese pho or Thai pad thai. There are several types of pancit: pancit bihon and pancit luglog are eaten throughout the Philippines, but there are also regional dishes that feature pancit as well, such as pancit alanganin, a soupy noodle dish, found in Bulacan.
The word “pancit” is borrowed from Hokkien, a popular Chinese dialect on the islands. In Hokkien, “pian i sit” means “something conveniently cooked fast.” Pancit then is a form of fast food that has risen to comfort food status.
Just like Italian pasta was derived from the noodles traders brought from China, noodles were also introduced to the Philippines by Chinese traders and evolved into pancit, a rice-based variation created from local crops. If eggs are added to the rice noodle, then it becomes pancit canton. Because the noodles were quicker to cook than rice—in the days before Japanese rice cookers—the Filipinos quickly embraced and made the dish their own.
Pancit bihon is made by cooking the noodles in soy sauce, another Chinese import, and adding your choice of meat, typically chicken, pork or shrimp. Pancit palabok is a shrimp variety of pancit where the noodles are sauced with a shrimp-infused gravy and then finished with toppings such as shrimp, boiled eggs, and sometimes even pork skin cracklings. The shrimp is really what makes this dish, giving it a deep seafood flavor beloved by those who live across the archipelago of islands. Pancit palabok has made it to American shores via the fast food chain Jollibee where it is served up as “fiesta noodles,” despite not being a dish reserved for celebrations.
In addition to pancit, Filipinos inherited a widely known Chinese cultural belief—on someone’s birthday, it is good luck for them to eat noodles. The lengthy noodles represent the threads of life and must be eaten without being cut in order to preserve the fortune of a long life. Misua, though not considered a type of pancit because it is made from wheat flour rather than rice, is the standard noodle used for this occasion and is usually served in a clear soup with either ground pork or pork meatballs. You can think of misua as the Chinese-Filipino version of chicken noodle soup, as it is also served to those who are feeling sick.
Sotanghon, “bean-thread” noodles, are another type of noodle, but not considered pancit because it is made from mung beans rather than rice. The noodles have a surprisingly clear appearance and are thin like Italian vermicelli. In the United States, you might know this variety of noodle as cellophane or “glass” noodles. Sotanghon is typically cooked two ways, either by frying it with vegetables or in a clear soup, both of which are ways to cook pancit as well.
There is one constant item on every fast food restaurant’s menu in the Philippines: Spaghetti. Pinoy Spaghetti, or sweet spaghetti, is just regular Italian pasta spaghetti with a bolognese meat sauce with two main differences: (1) in addition to ground meat, hot dog or longganisa (the Filipino version of Spanish chorizo) chunks are added and (2) the sauce is sweetened with brown sugar. It is iconically topped with large shreds of American-style orange cheddar.
Spaghetti was either introduced by the American occupation or by European traders sometime between the 1940s and 1960s. Understanding the Filipino palate for sugar requires a deeper investigation into the centuries of colonization the Philippines experienced. Although the islands are native to plants that create sweeteners, throughout the period of Spanish colonization, the sugars produced were either exported or reserved for those who could afford the meager supply not sold overseas.
In the 19th century, sugar became mass produced and an exported supply from the Philippines was less in demand. In the following century, during World War II the spaghetti dish was transformed due to a tomato shortage, which prompted Filipino cooks to substitute another reddish sauce, banana ketchup. Banana ketchup is a popular Filipino condiment made of bananas (of course), sugar, vinegar, and spices. Because of their ingenuity, Filipino food, some argue, began the Asian fusion tradition long before American chains did it in the States.
Jollibee spaghetti. Photo by GoodEats YQR (Unsplash).
Sweet spaghetti is so popular over there that the Philippines is the only country that McDonald’s — yes, our Micky D’s — produces a spaghetti dish for. The Jollibee version is typically served alongside a fried chicken drumstick, the specialty of the Jollibee chain. The Jollibee Spaghetti and Chicken Joy combo is always my go-to both when I am in Manila visiting and when I am craving late night snacks here in the Bay Area.
That’s a brief, brief rundown of the many varieties of Filipino noodles offered. While the Chinese influence still rings clear, the flavors of the island — particularly the use of pork and shrimp — bring these noodle dishes alive in Filipino homes and restaurants across the archipelago and abroad.
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Giannina Ong - Bay Area, CA
Co-Editor Chopsticks Alley Pinoy
Giannina was born and raised in the Bay Area. A self-proclaimed social justice warrior, she is currently wrapping up her master's in women's and gender studies at University of Toronto, writing a thesis on Asian American mothers. As a Chinese Filipino American, she moves beyond the binaries that lock people into dichotomous thinking. She is a nerd: she loves reading, writing, and being in the classroom. She loves Filipino food, especially sinigang (sarap ng maasim!). She hopes to one day be a professor, sharing knowledge that empowers women and minority groups.