Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Rebel Noodles

In the basement of Lucky Plaza, at the heart of Singapore’s shopping district of Orchard Road, thrives what could be considered a Filipino hawker food center. Here you will find Jollibee, Lutong Pinoy 1, Lutong Pinoy 2,  Kamayan Pinoy, Tapa King and Lechon Pinoy. Six out of a total of sixteen food stalls (the rest are regional food that have some commonalities with Philippine cuisine as well) meld indigenous Austronesian ingredients and cooking methods with those of a revolving cast of traders, settlers, colonizers and dreamers. These are the foodways that make us who we are: our complex national and personal histories served up on a plate or a soup bowl.

One can happily spend the whole day going from stall to stall. First stop would have to be Jollibee, the Filipino’s answer to McDonald’s: fast, cheap and consistent. It looks like any other fast food joint:  fried chicken, burgers, French Fries. But then there’s this: sweet spaghetti with slivers of hotdog and melted cheddar cheese. It’s a hybrid that perhaps only a child could love, which is why this dish is a hit at Filipino kids’ birthday parties.

Any noodle dish can be traced back to China, though I’m sure the Italians will put up a fight for the pasta’s origins story and would probably scratch their heads at Jollibee’s interpretation of spaghetti. What you can be certain about is that when the Chinese, who had been trading with the Philippines since the 9th century, began to settle and intermarry with the native population, noodle dishes multiplied. Pancit is the catch-all name for Philippine noodles made from rice, buckwheat, wheat flour, or monggo bean starch. Stirfried with a variety of meats and vegetables, pancit is derived from the Hokkien word pain i sit which means “convenient food.” And pancit is indeed food for the masses. Pancit palabok, pancit Canton, pancit Miki, pancit bihon, pancit Miki Bihon, pancit luglug …  to name but a few.

Lutong Pinoy 2 makes a mean pancit palabok. Unlike the other variety that uses thick noodles to absorb the sauce, their version is made with thin rice noodles. The gravy sits atop like an insouciant orange shrug. Colored by crushed shrimp shells and achiote, the sauce makes pancit palabok the stuff of guilty and squeamish pleasure. The word palabok always makes me cringe: it brings up images of slime and other malapot, or sticky sludgy stuff. But the bright orange gravy has the right consistency and flavor, and they don’t skimp on the toppings either. When all combined, each forkful is a savory and creamy blend of slick noodles, crispy chicharon, savory pork, poached shrimp, hard-boiled egg, green onions with the citrus tang of kalamansi squeezed over to finish the dish.

(For more on my pancit palabok obsession, please check out

Once broth is introduced, what was once pancit is transformed into something else: a noodle soup dish. Along with pancit palabok, Lutong Pinoy #2 serves batchoy (a noodle soup made with offal, lard and other bits of goodness) and chicken mami (springy yellow egg noodles in a flavourful golden broth, topped with sliced chicken and shredded napa cabbage). These are favored as late afternoon merienda fare.

There’s one pancit dish that isn’t served at Lucky Plaza and it’s a rule-breaker. There are no noodles in this dish, and yet it carries the pancit name. It’s also broth-based. Behold the pancit Molo: a glorious rendition of wonton soup. Molo is a town in Iloilo City and it lends its name to this special pancit. I’m Ilonggo on my father’s side, and this is a near sacred dish in our family, legendary among relatives and friends who were lucky enough to have a bowl (or several) of my Lola Mary’s famous pancit Molo.  My grandmother, who passed away five years ago last month, continues to be our family’s beloved matriarch.  Tributes have poured into my Aunt’s Facebook page honoring the anniversary of Lola Mary’s passing. Several comments revolved around not only how loving and wonderful she was, but also how much her pancit Molo is missed.

As October speeds into the holiday season, I look forward to being back home in California with my family to honor Lola Mary in our own way. Soon I will leave the humidity of Singapore and the numerous food stalls of Lucky Plaza. Instead, I’ll be shopping for ingredients at 99 Ranch in Gardena with my Mom, for the type of home cooking that I only get to experience once a year since becoming an expat in Asia. During the holidays we gather around the table: Mom, my siblings and our own families, cousins, aunties, nieces and nephews with a single task: hand-wrapping each wonton so that it looks like a bishop’s hat, the special way that Lola Mary had passed down to my Mom. Meanwhile the “mother broth,” a luxurious soup-base that takes three days to make properly, will be simmering on the stovetop. The wontons are boiled in the broth and whisked away as soon as they float to the top. Finished with fried garlic and sliced scallions, we will have our own bowlful of personal and national histories to warm us after Christmas Eve mass. This is the noche buena I look forward to more than anything else during the holidays.

Doreen Fernandez Tikim: Essays on Philippine Food and Culture
Jason Tastes Asia, Episode 7: Philippines Panciteria and Panaderia

Pancit Palabok from Lutong Pinoy 2

Preparing wontons for Pancit Molo

Homecooked Pancit Molo

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