Two Healthy Takes on Pancit—a Filipino Noodle Dish That Traveled Far and Brings Joy to Our Hearts
Pictured recipe: Filipino Pancit Bihon
As you walk into a Filipino household that is hosting a party or gathering, you can smell the heavenly scent of deliciousness that awaits you inside. At the center of the table, where we all huddle together and reach for various dishes that are beautifully displayed on the table, there is a platter with a mountain of aromatic glasslike noodles tossed with vegetables, shredded chicken and pork and mushrooms that we call pancit.
What Is Pancit?
Pancit is a noodle-based dish from the Philippines. Noodles came to the shores of the Philippines from China sometime before the 13th century. "Pancit, which comes from the Hokkien pian+e+sit, is still recognizably Chinese, although originally it did not necessarily mean a noodle dish," wrote Doreen G. Fernandez, a Filipino food historian, in a 2003 essay titled "Culture Ingested." "Gloria Chan-Yap tells us that it literally means 'something that is conveniently cooked' and indicates the frying process. Since noodles are easy to prepare by frying, the word often, but not necessarily, means noodles."
Today pancit comes in various forms with different names—it all depends on the province or the town. Some variants have soup, some have chicharron (pork rinds) crushed on top, some can be eaten with no utensils needed. It's a dish cooks have made their own. "It was a conscious and yet unconscious cultural reaction, in that borrowers knew that they were cooking foreign dishes while making necessary adaptations, but were not aware that they were transforming the dish and making it their own," Fernandez wrote. "Pancit, for example, from a Chinese noodle dish, is now the signature of many a town or region (pancit Malabon, pancit Marilao, pancit habhab of Lucban), and of many an individual (pancit ni Aling Nena). That certainly shows that both evolution and creation have been involved."
Pictured recipe: Vegan "Pancit Bihon" with Spaghetti Squash Noodles
My Favorite Pancit
My favorite pancit is pancit bihon—a type of thin noodle made from rice. It is easy to make and it constantly reminds me of family, friends, gatherings, parties, birthdays and abundance. As a mentor of mine shared his favorite memories of this dish, he said: "My mom makes enough for everyone to have seconds and thirds, plus I know there is more for my family to take home and keep the love, warmth and abundance that my mother has shared with us."
Pancit has been a part of our Filipino food history for centuries—it has become our own dish, it has been part of our celebrations and gatherings. It's a dish that brings a smile as it reminds me of joyous memories throughout my life. I've shared two versions of the dish here: a healthy take on the classic pancit bihon, with pork, chicken and vegetables, and a unique vegan spin, made with spaghetti squash in place of noodles. The latter was inspired by my nephew who loves to eat but needs to eat more vegetables. I hope you'll enjoy these dishes as much as my family and friends have.
Natalia Roxas is a Filipina-American food, travel and culture photographer based in Chicago, and the founder of Filipino Kitchen. She is the primary architect of Filipino Kitchen's Kultura Festival, an annual Filipino American food and arts festival. Roxas is responsible for the photography that appears on the organization's blog and the Filipino Kitchen Instagram account. Her work and photography can be found on the Filipino Kitchen website, and on her personal Instagram. Read her previous article for EatingWell about the Filipino garlic-ginger chicken soup tinola.