The History of Pancit: The Beginnings and Becomings of this “Long Life” NoodleJune 6, 2019
Pancit is as crucial to each Filipino feast as rice is to every complete Filipino meal. With Santacruzan (among other regional fiestas all over the country) looming over the month of May, stuffing one’s face with numerous variations of the said noodle dish is a delightful certainty. Yet while preparing (and consuming) big cauldrons of pancit is second nature to any true-blue Pinoy, the origins of this iconic party food are not exactly confined to a specific region (or to our country, for that matter).
From a Chinese Merchant’s Baon to a Filipino Favorite
Even foreigners who’ve been to our shores refer to pancit as Filipino noodles, but the word itself is neither Filipino in origin nor did it necessarily bring to mind images of long, thin strands of rice or wheat. The name comes from the Hokkien “pian e sit,” which literally translates to “something conveniently cooked” (i.e., fast food). It probably arrived in our country as a Chinese trader’s baon meant to tide him over in his homesickness as he plied his wares to the natives. Once his stash ran out, he may have tried to make his own noodles using rice flour as an alternative to wheat. Given how rice noodles are easier to cook than either rice or wheat noodles and are highly versatile vehicles for various toppings and sauces, the clamor for pancit quickly caught on.
During the Spanish occupation, the indigenous noodle dish was essentially the nation’s first “takeout food,” with panciteros (Chinese food hawkers who sold pancit) catering to the cigar factories’ working women who had little time for housework or cooking. The demand for the convenient, ready-to-eat meal soon led to the vendors establishing permanent roadside eateries to service both working and traveling customers, the resulting panciteria’s thus becoming our country’s first covered restaurants.
More than a National Dish: The Many Variations of Pancit
Nowadays, pancit is a fixture at many significant milestones such as weddings, baptisms, graduations, and most especially during birthdays, where their inherently Chinese symbolism as edible harbingers of a long life (provided you don’t cut the noodles before you eat them) are frequently invoked. It continues to be enjoyed by generations of Filipinos in various forms, with sotanghon, bihon, canton, or miki as the most commonly used and consumed noodle variants. Pancit also goes by a lot of names, each one indicating either the dish’s color (pancit puti or white pancit), how it is eaten (pancit habhab), where it is sold (pancit istasyon), alleged inventor (pancit Henoy), or its place of origin (pancit Malabon).
The following are just a handful of the ways that each region or province in our nation’s vast archipelago has incorporated their trademark produce with pancit to result in a fiesta staple that is all their own.
1. Pancit Canton
This pancit variant is so popular that it compelled certain conglomerates to develop an instant version of the stuff. Wheat noodles are stir-fried with soy sauce and ginger, and then tossed with a bevy of toppings from your usual squid, shelled shrimp, and vegetables to the fish balls, sliced pork, and fried, neon-orange tinted quail eggs that are emblematic of the famed Chinese birthday noodles.
Strangely enough, Pancit Canton has no roots whatsoever in Guangdong- formerly Canton- China. There has yet to be a conclusive explanation behind its misleading name, but it was most likely thought of by an enterprising pancitero seeking to lure in customers looking for an “authentic” Comida China experience.
2. Pancit Bihon Guisado (Sautéed Rice Noodles)
Also a contender for the most popular noodle dish, this type of pancit uses bihon or thin rice noodles. Its name comes from the root word “guisa,” which is Tagalog for sautéing, which in this case is in a pan with meat, vegetables, and soy sauce.
3. Sotanghon Guisado
Similar to Bihon Guisado, translucent sotanghon (mung bean or glass noodles) is also sautéed with a savory sauce, and some hefty toppings. In the past, sotanghon noodles were imported from HK or China and were expensive, so these were served only during special occasions.
4. Pancit Luglog
Also referred to in some circles as Pancit Malabon, this dish uses thick rice noodles that are dunked in hot water to soften them prior to adding the lip-smacking, unctuous orange sauce (“Luglog” means “to dunk in water”). Littered with fresh shrimp, squid, and even shucked oysters fresh off the northern fishing town of Malabon, this pancit is legendary and is a known staple in office and classroom parties alike.
5. Pancit Batil Patong
Tuguegarao’s official contribution to the pancit world derives its name from the two ways that eggs are used in this delicacy. Miki noodles (which, incidentally, are also made from eggs) are stir-fried with carabao beef, bean sprouts, topped with a fried egg (“patong”) and served with an accompanying bowl of whisked egg-drop soup (“batil”).
6. Pancit Habhab
This pancit earned its moniker from the way that it’s eaten. “Habhab” is the term that Lucban inhabitants use to refer to the practice of placing their famed pancit (made of miki noodles sautéed with pork meat, liver, shrimp, and vegetables as well as a dash of cane vinegar) on a banana leaf, and then maneuvering the leaf to dump the pancit straight into one’s mouth.
7. Pancit Lomi
This pancit dish originated in Lipa, Batangas back in 1968, and was invented by restaurateur To Kim Eng. A bowl of lomi typically has thick egg noodles, pork liver, fish balls, kikiam, and quail eggs, all swimming in a thick broth and occasionally topped with a whisked egg. This pancit dish is such a significant part of the Batangueño’s life that they celebrate a Lomi Festival every June, alongside the capital’s Foundation Day itself.
8. Pancit Langlang
These bowls of flat miki noodles with onions, shredded adobo meat, and chicharon drenched in flavorful broth can be found all over Imus, Cavite. Jose Rizal himself praised this soupy dish in El Filibusterismo, with one of his characters referring to it as “the soup par excellence!”
These days, most of us need only visit the nearest grocery or convenience store to get our instant noodle fix. But with so many scrumptious renditions of the “original fast food” to be had throughout the Philippines, an impromptu road trip to sample as many of them as possible might be an ideal way to cap off the summer.