Pancit Bihon

Tom’s little man is half Filipino.  His mother’s family all come from that wonderful country consisting of a group of 7,107 islands off the mainland of Asia.  Did you know that the area occupied by the Philippines is slightly larger than the state of Arizona?

Wonderful what you can learn in geography class right?

Before I meet Tom my exposure to the Filipino culture was zero.

I knew a little of the history of the country, which is pretty fascinating once you really take a look - Nestle between the South China Sea and the Pacific Ocean this cluster of island was an ideal point for migrating people all over the world.  As a result the country is made up of a range of ethnic groups.

So its no accident with so many outside influences during its history, the Philippine cuisine is a fascinating blend of Malay, Spanish and Chinese cultures. To the Filipinos, food is very important and integral part of local art and culture as well as communal existence.

So, when I was invited to the little man’s birthday party, I saw first hand how food brought them together as one single unit.

As I looked around the food table I was amazed in how many dishes were so closely related to my very own growing up in a Latin American country.  But then, with nearly 400 years of Spanish colonization, this was not accident.  While the Malays, from Malaysia brought with them the knowledge of preparing hot chilies and the use of ginataan, or coconut milk, in sauces to balance the spiciness and the Chinese introduced their noodle dishes, bean curds, egg rolls and soy sauce.  The Spaniards introduced a Mediterranean style of eating and preparing food. Techniques such as braising and sautéing, and meals cooked in olive oil, are examples. Spain also introduced cooking with seasonings, such as garlic, onions, tomatoes, sweet peppers, and vinegar.

So seeing Adobe pork among cassava cakes was not strange to anyone there, but me.

And like any true Spanish influence for festive occasions, Filipino women band together and prepare most, if not all of the dishes. 

In this special occasion, Mrs. P, the little man’s maternal grandmother, was Top Chef.

This tiny, eighty-something year old woman had the upper hand in all of the dishes served at the party and I could not get enough of seeing her move around stirring, filling, serving.  A bundle of energy that just made you radiate towards her like a beacon.

Eighty – guys… EIGHTY!

I’m tired after 20 minutes in my kitchen making a cake!

So here I was with a table full of strange and familiar dishes in front of me, when I notice Mrs. P bringing a electric wok and a couple of covered bowls and setting up in the corner.  Of course I followed and was treated to an quick lesson in the art of making one of the most eaten dishes in the Filipino household – Pancit.

Pancit recipes primarily consist of noodles, vegetables, and slices of meat or seafood with variations often distinguished by the type of noodles used. Some pancit, such as mami and La Paz-styled batchoy, are noodle soups while the “dry” varieties are comparable to chow mein in preparation.

This one was the “dry” variety.  She used a combination off chicken and pork in this version, and explained to me that she liked to use bok choy, instead of green cabbage.  The trick is to cut every very fine and to work fast.

She was like a tiny hurricane!

But the final dish was my favorite and as always, when I like something I have to try my hand at it – this way I can have it any time I want.  While I made some mental notes in the process, Mrs. P is one of those cooks that gives you the recipe with what I call, mental measuring “a little bit of this, a lot of that” mainly no true measurements, everything sort of by the feel and by the “eye” so no help there.  Hence, my mass internet research.  It was difficult to find too, but while I found different variations, it was not Mrs. P Pancit recipe.  Therefore I decided to wing it and arm with my research and lots of Q&A with Mrs. P, this past weekend I decided to take the plunge and try my hand at it.

And it was a hit!  I actually took the easy way out and instead of cooking my own chicken thighs as the recipe calls for it (and Mrs. P), I bough a roast chicken from my local supermarket deli that I shredded it.  Since I did not cook my own chicken, I did not have the stock needed; instead I used some that I had made for a previous recipe (you can also use store bough stock, just make sure its of good quality).  Consequently, the short cuts made the dish came together pretty fast.

The results were pretty good.  Like anything, once you try the “original”, its pretty hard to duplicate the same dish, there are so many variables involved, in my case, a totally new style of cooking with new techniques and new ingredients – I have never cooked with rice sticks noodles, so it was a learning curve to see how they cooked in the first place.

After tasting, Tom declared that Mrs. P, would be proud.  My first attempt came out very good.  And that the next time she is in town, we should invite her over and I could serve it and hear it directly from her.

I’m was up for the challenge… how about you?

Here is the recipe, try it – I can guarantee you will not be disappointed.

Pancit Bihon
Serves 4-6

  • 8 ounces “Excellent” brand rice sticks
  • 2-3 pieces chicken thighs or drumsticks or (1 whole roasted chicken from your supermarket).
  • 1 small green cabbage (shredded in 1/2 inch pieces) – I used Chinese Cabbage, bok choy
  • 2-3 medium carrots (either shredded or chopped thinly crosswise)
  • 1 small onion (finely chopped)
  • 2 cloves garlic (minced)
  • 1 tablespoon canola oil
  • 2 tablespoons dark soy sauce
  • 1 tablespoon fish sauce (optional, add 1 tablespoon soy sauce  if not adding fish sauce)
  • Freshly ground black pepper

Optional Garnishes:

  • Lemon wedge
  • Chopped scallions
  • Chili garlic oil

If you are making the chicken from scratch:

Boil chicken in 4 cups of water to make the stock. Once cooked, shred the chicken meat into thin strips. Discard the bones and set the stock aside.

*if you want to skip this step: use a roasted chicken bough at your local supermarket and shred it all.  You can also use store bough stock – I have found that the Pacific foods brand, especially the organic is excellent.

Heat a large wok to medium-high heat. Add canola oil. Stir fry the garlic and onions until the onions turn clear. Be careful not to burn the garlic.

Add the shredded chicken pieces and cook until well coated.  

Add cabbage and carrots. Lightly stir fry 2-3 minutes. Pour the mixture onto a bowl and set aside.

Pour the chicken stock into the heated wok. Once it starts boiling, turn the heat down to medium.

Add rice sticks, soy sauce, and fish sauce. Boil for another 5 minutes or so until there is approximately 1/4 cup stock left. Add the meat mixture back into the wok. Lightly stir fry until all the liquid has evaporated.

Add freshly ground pepper to taste. Garnish with a lemon wedge, chopped scallions, and chili garlic oil.

Tom and I like to squeeze some of the lemon juice on top before eating it; which gives it a refreshing touch to the whole dish.

Lessons learned and tips:

  1. I only used chicken, but you can also use pork, or a combination of meats and seafood, like shrimp.
  2. For an authentic taste, Mrs. P recommends using Filipino brands such as Excellent rice sticks (rice noodles with a little cornstarch mixed in) and Lauriat dark soy sauce. Both are available in most Asian grocery stores.  But, if you cannot find either, you could use any good Asian brand.
  3. I use a well-seasoned wok but most sauté pans should work. Just be careful when the stock is drying up as the noodles would stick to the pan. Keep tossing the noodles to keep them from sticking.
  4. Even though most Asian recipes would tell you to soak the noodles in warm water, Mrs. P told me that boiling the noodles in the stock infuses a more intense flavor and keeps the noodles moist, plus is one less step!
  5. As with any recipe, adjust according to your taste. I like mine with a healthy portion of vegetables that have a slight crunch to them. For softer vegetables, cook a little bit longer once everything is mixed in the wok.